How Things Will Be in Tech Comm … After the Singularity?

The singularity refers to a point in time at which technology will transform society in such far-reaching ways that it will be impossible to conceive of what life was like before the transformation. Or something like that.

I actually think reflect about the directions technology is taking us now and then. When you live in Silicon Valley, where practically every company is a tech company, it kind of makes you think about the future.

I recently listened to a great webinar on the “Future of Help Systems” by Tony Self. An experienced veteran in our field, as well as author of the DITA Style Guide, Tony talks about various technologies, from Google Glass to augmented reality, e-ink, and so forth. He notes a decrease in TOCs, the rise of metadata and faceted search, and many other trends. He also evaluates some of his predictions from 2003.

Of course these trends all take place before the singularity. And I’m not really serious about predicting tech trends after the singularity (will we document APIs for genetic sequencing?). But I do have some new thoughts that I think expand on the question, “what is the future of help?”

In my previous post, I noted that I updated my blog with a few new features. I added a (Ning-like) social network framework called BuddyPress. I added a Stack Overflow like Question and Answer feature. After some feedback, I integrated a plugin (WordPress Social Login) that allows users to log in via Twitter, Google, or Facebook. When you register or log in, a user gets created within the system.

When did I decide to do this? Over a whimsical weekend, between trips to the movies and YMCA.

I’ve been using WordPress since about 2006 — three or so years after it started. I’ve watched the platform grow and grow. The latest I heard, about 22% of new domains in the U.S. are powered by WordPress. There are 25,000+ plugins, and thousands of themes. Even without programming skills, you can quickly stand up a website and add all kinds of sophisticated functionality to it. What would have taken months and required specialized skill to implement is now something an amateur can do over the weekend.

WordPress has reached tremendous growth in just 10 short years. (See their 10th anniversary post.) I’ve been married 5 years longer than WordPress has even been around.

The popularity of a platform is critical to its success. As more people use it and write about it, the platform becomes easier to use, because there’s so much documentation on the web about it, in addition to more plugins and themes, so the ease of use spirals upward.

I’m actually using the default Twentytwelve theme right now. When I have a question about anything, usually someone else has asked it. Either in a forum or another site, it’s easy to quickly gather answers and solutions, and you can continue hacking your way to building whatever you want. As long as you’re working with popular tools, you can easily put together decent solutions without a lot of programming skill.

What will WordPress be like in another 10 or 20 years? Assume that its momentum keeps growing. Now maybe we’ll have 250,000 plugins, and thousands more professional, responsive themes. Themes for every situation you can think of. Plugins for the functionality you need. Activate and configure everything in minutes. Better server performance, responsive design, search functionality, and more. You’ll be able to do just about anything. And it will fit in perfectly with the evolution of the web.

WordPress isn’t the only web CMS in town, of course. Drupal, Joomla, and a handful of others have similar momentum. But in this post I’ll focus more on WordPress.

How will WordPress’ success shape the future of tech comm? After all, almost no one in tech comm uses WordPress to deliver help. Nevertheless, I think WordPress will have an influencing factor in the future in the following ways:

1. Expectations

Users will expect their software to function with the same level of ease as WordPress. Logging in to a site, editing content, responding to comments, and configuring everything from an Internet portal is becoming a standard for operating on the web. Most information will be web-based, with data stored in the cloud, accessible by anyone with a login and rights.

And not just from an author’s point of view. End-users will also come to expect WordPress-like sites as a default website. When you visit a site on the web, if it doesn’t feel like a website (in terms of navigation, style, and functionality), users may dismiss it.

2. Blended Solutions with Open Source CMS

At some point, I think help vendors will leverage existing open source platforms as a foundation for their functionality. The way Componize integrates into Alfresco seems like a step in that direction. Why rebuild a CMS when so many already exist? Vendors may instead create extensive plugins or other integration into these existing, highly functional systems.

3. More Tech Comm Functionality

Although open source solutions lack the necessary tech comm functionality now, they could possibly catch up in the near future. All it would take would be a few massive companies to invest in some needed functionality to make the platform more competitive.

Content re-use, PDF output, role-based access to content, import/export, translation, and more could be just around the corner. When all of these features are available in platforms like WordPress, and it’s all free, what will be the argument for using something else?

4. Centralized Content

When you deliver content on a web CMS, you have more possibilities. For example, let’s say your support group wants to implement a Stack-Overflow-like Question and Answer feature. You want their content to integrate seamlessly with your help content. And maybe you have a company blog as well. And a forum. With WordPress (and Drupal), which have all of these modules readily available, all the different groups can publish onto the same platform, giving you a powerful convergence of content. And you can implement it all in short amount of time.

As long as everyone is tagging with a controlled vocabulary (drawing from an agreed-upon taxonomy for the company), content that each group produces will plug into the system automatically. The content naturally flows into the views or locations defined by the information architect.

For example, if you have a feature called “gizmos,” when you tag help documentation with “gizmos,” and your support group tags Q&A posts with “gizmos,” and your marketing team tags relevant blog posts with “gizmos,” and your sales engineers tags their gizmo content with the term “gizmos,” the user who has a question about “gizmos” can click the gizmo tag (either in a faceted search or some navigation element) and pull all of this content into one view.

It would be nice to see the day when tech comm content isn’t siloed in its own little kingdom but instead gets united with other web content from a company.

5. Future-proof Functionality

Whenever you need functionality, someone will have already built it on WordPress. For example, do you want your users to log in via Twitter, Facebook, or Google? Do you need a theme to be responsive for mobile? Do you want to _______ (fill in the blank). Someone has already done it or will have already done it with WordPress. Why wait for vendors to catch up with poor attempts to replicate this existing functionality when it already exists in a cutting-edge platform?

The Story of the Telegraph and Telephone

I’m not saying WordPress is competitive now as a help platform. Remember, this is a post that looks into the crystal ball of the future. And I’m only speculating. Many tech comm tools are getting to be extremely powerful and advanced right now. So I could be way off. But … let’s remember the story of the telephone and telegraph.

Before phones were around, the telegraph was the dominant communication technology. When Alexander Graham Bell built the first telephone (v1), it sucked. You could maybe talk with someone 50 feet away through a crackly, muffled sound. When Bell presented his poor-working phone to these telegraph companies, they practically laughed. Who would need or want a device like that?

While the telegraph company continued working away with better and better telegraph machines and processes, the telephone was getting better and better as well. Sound was getting clearer, distances could be increased, and so on. One day, the telephone reached far enough in its development to overtake the telegraph. Practically overnight Bell put these large telegraph companies out of business.

The dilemma for companies is to pay enough attention to rising (but still sucky) technologies that won’t advance their business while also moving forward with their existing technology. You don’t want to wake up one day to find that your whole business just buckled because that technology you previously ignored now overtook the space. (See The Innovator’s Dilemma for more on this topic.)

There are lots of other disruptive technology stories. Think about Netflix and Blockbuster. In its early days, Netflix’s “streaming” model was a far-fetched idea. Then it worked. Then Blockbuster disappeared.

You can find similar stories about Skype, Napster, Amazon, Salesforce and more. How about the computer itself? I’m sure you’ve seen all kinds of quotes from people wondering who would ever use/want a computer.

What will be the disruptive technology for help? Maybe it’s the little web CMS like WordPress and Drupal. Sure they suck now for help authoring. Who can author in that crappy little window? You can’t even create links until you publish something. Where’s the PDF?!! Every customer must have the PDF, of course, and you can’t get pretty PDF out of WordPress like you can with Framemaker and other tools.

So sure, right now WordPress isn’t the right tool. But it will keep getting better and better. 25,000 plugins in 10 years. Thousands of themes. Progress is not just slowly rising. It’s like a river rushing down an open bed. Give it 10 more years, see its user base (dense with developers) explode, and when all of these features are there, plus about a dozen more (social networks, question and answer modules, integrated forums, taxonomies, etc.), and it’s free, and easy to configure, and just works out of the box, it might be the disruptive technology that catches us by surprise.

That is, unless the singularity takes place first. If that happens, then disregard everything I’ve written.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for a gamification company called Badgeville in the Silicon Valley area in California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), content development (DITA, testing), API documentation (code examples, programming), web publishing (web platforms, Web design) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS or by email. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

5 thoughts on “How Things Will Be in Tech Comm … After the Singularity?

  1. Ellis Pratt

    I’ve just written post for the STC’s Notebook blog on technical communicators and their websites, in which I said:

    Over time, we’ve moved our website from Author-it to Drupal, and then onto WordPress. Each time, we’ve had to stop ourselves from thinking about our website as a software issue and not an information design issue. It’s easy to limit yourself, by assuming your authoring platform can only do this or that. If you step back and define what you want, you’ll often find there is a way of doing it with a plugin or another way of extending the software.

    In terms of a singularity, it’s likely to be the development of speech interaction. I don’t think Apple will open up Siri, but we may see something from IBM or Google. Apple’s Future Vision from 1987 may give us some clues.

    When I was working at Digitext in the early 2000s, and we were developing intranets for organisations such as Inland Revenue and the Department for Transport, my project manager (Dr Tom James) was predicting users would be using semantic tagging to avoid information overload. He said content would be tagged semantically (by both users and writers), and users would use these tags to select which content was pushed to them. He saw this as being delivered using email and RSS feeds, but you could maybe see #hashtags and other tags (within the Web pages themselves) being used to build personalised Web pages for users.

    Augmented Reality may be another cause for the singularity. We could pop our Google Glasses on and see a video of an expert who guides our hands. It may involve pressure sensitive gloves. If we wanted to have an intimate knowledge of cabinet making, AR could enable someone like James Krenov guide our movements around the wood – we’d follow a recording of his actions. It would be like he was standing behind us, leaning over and around our body.

    However, Matthew Ellison was reminding everyone at the Adobe Day earlier in the week that 10 years ago we were expecting AnswerWorks’ natural query language to transform Help. Matthew was saying things can move very slowly.

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