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Predicting Tech Comm's Future for Mobile

by Tom Johnson on Apr 29, 2011 •
categories: technical-writing

Predicting Tech Comm's Future for MobileRobert Desprez has an interesting post on How Will Technical Writing Change in the Next Ten Years. Among a few predictions, he writes the following about tech comm's future for mobile:

We'll all be preparing our online help for mobile devices. Smartphones and tablets are expected to start outselling computers in the near future. More and more people will be using these devices to work and will need technical assistance. I expect this is the next “big thing” for us.

I agree that mobile devices will continue to grow. Every statistic suggests that computers will become more advanced, tiny, and ubiquitous. However, given that we have more than 350,000 iPhone apps right now, and the market for technical documentation for mobile apps hasn't flourished, why should we think mobile will factor heavily into tech comm's future?

I do think mobile will play a larger role, but several things will need to change before mobile becomes a prominent playing field for technical writers.

The Missing App

The one app that iPhone lacks is a screen recorder app (like Camtasia Studio) to capture video demos of all these apps. I don't mean screen capture; I mean live video that records the screen's actions like a movie. It's the one app the iPhone needs the most.

The only way to create a screencast of an iPhone app is to run an iPhone emulator on a Mac. Currently the developers have to load up a development environment on your Mac, or you have to borrow one of their machines after hours and record a screencast (which I actually did a couple of months ago).

When mobile devices allow you to more easily record the screen, there might be a greater need for mobile screencasts, and technical communicators (with screencasting skills) might begin to play a larger role.

QR Codes

Another big shift might be the prevalence of QR codes. Imagine hiking on a trail or exploring a city with your mobile device. You stumble across a building, a monument, or some other interesting object. It has a QR code (or something similar) on it. You hold up your mobile device and voila, immediately you're learning about that object. These codes would enable an era of location-based documentation.

QR codes could also be handy when you're working on your car's engine. All of those mysterious parts -- if only each part had a QR code. Or let's say you're taking apart your refridgerator to fix something. What does each component do or mean? If you had QR code stickers attached to each part, you could let people know more information about it.

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QR code
Download a QR code app on your mobile device and take a picture of this image with the app to see the hidden message.

Field Reference Guides

The third major use of mobile for tech comm lies in the field reference guide. While you probably wouldn't look up help information for a desktop app as you're sitting at you're computer, imagine if you're wandering in the woods looking for a certain type of bird. It would be nice to have the field guide as an app that you could navigate offline as you're wandering.

I sit at a desk all day, so it's hard for me to contemplate what it's like to have a job where you walk around, or where you're frequently outside. But let's say you're a door-to-door salesman. It might be nice to have a product list app on your mobile device that describes every product your company sells, along with a brief description and picture.

Or maybe you're a technician for a large company, with a lot of different devices, networks, and other technical infrastructure that you have to take care of. It would be nice to have a mobile reference guide for all the components you're responsible for.

The perfect scenario for mobile documentation is actually in the kitchen. For cooking novices like me, sometimes recipe books use jargon like "chop the carrots in julianne style" or "blanch the broccoli" or "braise the turkey" or "cook the caramel until it reaches a soft ball stage." It would be nice to have those recipes on a mobile device with links to more information or videos showing more detail of what it all means. I know I'd be the first one to buy such an app.

The possibilities for incorporating tech comm guides and videos on mobile devices are just opening up. The problem is that so many tech comm jobs are in software, and the sweet spot for tech comm with mobile isn't with software. There are 350,000 apps, most without documentation, to prove that. The real opportunities for mobile lie with location-based information needs, or information needs for people who aren't at their computers.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.