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A long list of technical innovations semi-relevant to technical writers

by Tom Johnson on Feb 12, 2015
categories: general

The degree of innovation over the past two decades is so immense that you have to dramatically narrow the scope to even have a fruitful discussion. I'm going to look specifically at technical innovations that might be semi-relevant to technical communicators.

You can somewhat draw a line between innovation with tools and innovation with ideas. But sometimes the innovation with tools leads to innovation with ideas as well, so the distinction is fuzzy. Even so, I've grouped the innovations into these two categories (tool innovations versus idea innovations).

Remember that not all innovations are disruptive. We're not always reinventing entire technologies and markets every year with radically new paradigms. Sometimes we're just improving things a bit. Whether slight improvements deserve to be called "innovations" is probably debatable -- it depends on your current context.

For example, if you're creating documentation with a chisel and stone, then acquiring a pencil and piece of paper might be a major step forward. But if you're not in a caveman context, a paper and pencil is no innovation at all.

Note that with these innovations, I've decided to identify leading products or brands (rather than broad category descriptions) because a specific brand often makes the category more immediate.

Tool innovations

Tool Description
Github Revision control software to share, version, and collaborate with code or text files; introduces social coding and allows users to clone and fork existing repos rather than creating code from scratch. The de facto source control on the web for open source projects.
Bootstrap A web framework to quickly design websites using pre-styled/built components; also see Zurb Foundation, a similar framework.
Wikipedia Wiki platform for collaborative knowledge sharing and development. (Wikipedia is based on Mediawiki, so the general category here is wikis).
jQuery Animations, interactivity, and other effects, such as scrollSpy, scrollTo, and hundreds more. Nearly every website includes jQuery for its ability to easily select elements, iterate through lists, and more.
Responsive design Pixel perfect phone + tablet + desktop display through media queries in your stylesheet. No need for different outputs to respond to different devices -- instead you set different element displays for different viewport sizes.
SVG (scalable vector graphics) graphics that you can control through Javascript in the browser; graphics are no longer static, nor are they trapped in videos.
HTML5 Semantic elements instead of div soup; browser js controls for audio and video, looping embedded videos, and more.
StackOverflow Crowd-sourced, gamified documentation on nearly every technical subject, with rating, vetting, and visibility mechanisms.
Static site generators Website compilers for developing rich, interactive websites without a database backend or LAMP server architecture; these generators perform well, are secure, and their code bases can be easily shared through repositories. (There are many different static site generators -- Jekyll is probably the most popular.)
oAuth Authorize users via Twitter, Facebook, Google, etc. to enable user authentication without needing to store user information on the site.
REST APIs REST APIs allow systems to interact through calls made using web requests to exchange information.
JSON Lightweight data format for exchanging information, primarily with REST APIs. JSON has largely replaced XML as the data format that web technologies parse because it's lighter (more efficient) and thus reduces latency with web responses.
WordPress Open-source online CMS publishing platform that powers 25% of new online sites on the web (in the U.S.), with an enormous community (30,000 plugins, 15,000 themes, etc.). WordPress is a platform that enables the masses to publish content easily and regularly, without redeploying the entire site with each change.
Google search Instant findability for nearly any aspect of knowledge. Without question a gamechanger for finding information on the web with immediacy and relevance. Also allows advertisers to connect intelligently with searchers through a neutral meeting ground (the search results page).
AJAX Refresh web pages without reloading -- helpful for technologies such as Google maps, where you can pinch and zoom to change magnification without reloading the page.
Instant search Immediate search results as you type -- sometimes called live search. Allows you to recast your search keywords before you even finish your query.
Youtube Do-it-yourself video. Allows everyday people to publish videos from their phones, cameras, or other devices in an extremely easy way. Even provides machine translation as captions on videos.
Facebook, Reddit Social networks that allow individuals to interact in community settings, connecting and following and updating each other in ways that simulate friendships.
Smartphones Ubiquitous online presence; Internet anywhere experiences in small, portable browsers. Smartphones make us online all the time, immediately reactive to every email, text, or other ping. For many developing countries lacking cable/fiber infrastructure to support online connectivity, smartphones provide the only access to the web.
Twitter and hashtags Microdata aggregation that allows communities to form dynamically around keywords, allowing communities to spring up quickly around a specific topic without formally following each other on a social network.
Fitbit Wearable tech that integrates with your body's cardio + stats. Wearable tech is the trend -- Fitbit seems to epitomize this trend.
Big data Number crunching correlations based on massive data points. One application is traffic monitoring based on GPS cell phone patterns. This data is sent to a server that crunches the billions of incoming bits and notes trends about slow or fast-moving traffic, enabling maps to redistribute the traffic automatically and reduce congestion.
Amazon So many innovations: the success of the long tail, faceted filtering, online buying, add-on sales ("users who bought this also bought...").
Netflix Streaming video that enables immediate, on-demand cinema experiences. Although Netflix hasn't displaced movie theaters, it has largely displaced TV.
Internet of things Putting objects (like thermostats, garage doors, lighting systems) all online and controllable via web interfaces.
Augmented reality 3D holographic imaging directly from your computer screen. Enables better understanding of objects, since you can rotate and examine objects from different perspectives.
Swagger Interactive API documentation that allows users to try out API requests directly in the documentation.
Safaribooksonline Search across libraries of books and read content based on keyword results rather than independent books. Safari merges the multiplicity of books in a library into one stiched-together experience.
LESS and Sass Programming elements in CSS such as variables and other logic that empower you to create programming logic in your stylesheets.
Codeacademy Practice programming in an online command-line editor right next to tutorials; get feedback for programming errors. Codeacademy is just one example of the embedded command-line editors that integrate with documentation.
Fontawesome Free vector-based icons and fonts delivered from a CDN, scalable with perfect crispness at any magnification. Integrate into your web page with a simple class and script references to the CDN.
Markdown Wiki-like syntax for HTML that makes it easy to write and publish valid HTML markup. By simplifying the syntax, Markdown empowers people to more easily publish HTML. Markdown is an enormously popular markup, developed up without a standards committee and allowed to diverge into numerous dialects. Many web platforms can process Markdown.
Heroku Pay-as-you-go cloud application server to run applications (such as Java apps) on the web in scalable ways.
Jenkins Automated, continuous integration to kick off builds and other scripts with regular sequences.
DITA An open standard for structuring content that can be read by any platform that can parse the DITA XML schema; based on information typing, focusing heavily on tasks, enabling content re-use, standardizing documentation, and distributing authoring for large teams.

Idea innovations

Innovation Description
World Wide Web Decentralized authority in a shared online environment -- allowing information and contributions from a user independent of his or her role or title. Information comes from everyone, not only from officially designated technical communicators or companies. Application and interactivity in the cloud instead of on your local machine.
Agile Iterative development based on regular feedback rather than long, isolated build cycles.
DocOps Constant awareness of support issues and other feedback, with a process in place for updating existing content on the fly to meet the changing needs.
Every Page Is Page One A movement away from information fragmentation toward a more cohesive, integrated single page of information that is more complete and standalone (like a Wikipedia entry); the idea that people can enter your site from any point, and you must provide sufficient context to enable findability of information from each page.
Minimalism Reducing the amount of information and encouraging users to try out tasks, to experiment; adding helpful hints in error messages and other application contexts where users are acting rather than just reading.
Information typing Shaping information to fit predictable patterns for specific contexts, such as tasks, concepts, troubleshooting, references.
User-generated content Moving away from static experiences and allowing readers to interact or contribute through comments, direct edits, pingbacks, or other interactive mechanisms.
Content curation Praise for the role of information gathering; streams of content (such as pinboards) often created by distributed specialists. As curator, you arrange information in helpful ways like a curator arranges art in a museum.
Crowdsourcing Distributing work into small chunks spread out over large numbers of people. The small efforts are combined to form a massive effect overall, like mapping star systems or determining biomolecular design (through protein folding).
Gamification Incorporating game-like elements (such as points, rewards, badges, missions) into non-game contexts in order to incentive people to act. (StackOverflow is a great example.)
Artificial intelligence Training computers to simulate human-like responses and interactions (e.g., Siri on the iPhone). May include an avatar to humanize and vocalize help information and tips in an interface (like Clippy but actually functional instead of annoying).
Emotional language Writing like one speaks, but with a more informal, personal approach and a bit of color/expressiveness in order to connect to users on an emotional level and reduce the distance and frustration between a user and a technology product.
Everything Is Miscellaneous The idea that content resists categorization -- everything fits into various categories and hence can be grouped into a miscellaneous buckets; instead of a single hierarchical categorization, you create multiple ways of grouping things and allow the user to select the desired organization (pivoting on a facet). Digital content dynamically reorganizes itself based on the facet the user selects.
Information Mapping Mapping information to specific topic-type patterns, similar to DITA but more extensive; extracting headings to the margins to facilitate easy scanning.
Information architecture Defining what users see at different levels, such as first, second, third, and fourth tiers. Inter-relating information at the appropriate level to improve findability. Building navigation based on user needs rather than product features.
Simplicity/minimalism in design Keeping everything as simple as possible, knowing that people are busy, websites are diverse, and no one has time or energy to figure out complicated design; doing one thing only but doing it extremely well. Apple's hallmark of design -- simple elegance.
Task-based documentation The idea that users read to do, not to learn. Emphasizing tasks in documentation instead of lengthy explanations.
Semantic web Structuring elements on the web with tags that are semantic in nature, i.e., indicating meaning. Semantic tagging better informs searches so that information is more findable. Microformats with standardized semantic tagging schemas allow different systems to exchange information. For example, if you tag your book review with ISBN tags, it can be parsed by other systems that understand and look for those semantic tags.
Long tail Small hits, purchases, or downloads of non-mainstream content prove to be larger in aggregate than the mainstream, most popular content.
Open source Providing software available for free with the expectation that any use or improvement that is built on the code is also made available for free, thus creating an ongoing cycle of enhancement and reciprocity. (There are a lot of varieties of open source in terms of re-use.)
Content marketing In a tech writer perspective, treating technical documentation and marketing as one integrated experience; converting users into brand loyal advocates; leveraging technical content into marketing blogs, webinars, sales booths, and other contexts; seeing marketing efforts as informative to creating documentation (you learn what users want, need, expect) and documentation as informative to marketing (you empower users with what they seek).
User-centered documentation Centering documentation around a user's tasks, workflow, environment, and other contexts rather than centering documentation on what the application can do and its interface.
Content strategy Looking behind merely authoring and publishing information to consider the larger picture, such as the goal and strategy for the information, the process by which information will be created, reviewed, and removed; the editorial calendar, style choices, review processes, personas and audience analysis, rhetorical strategies, analytics, and more behind the production and dissemination of content. Content strategy does not necessarily include the creation of content iself -- that's tactics.
Reactive documentation Creating documentation that reacts to a user context so that the documentation is personalized on the fly to the user's profile, platform, programming language, API key, and other contexts.

Undoubtedly, the number of innovations both in tools and ideas over the past 20 years is astonishing. Technology is growing at a rapid rate, enabling us to do unprecedented things. My list here is a tiny fraction of tools and ideas that I've decided (somewhat randomly) to capture.

How can we, as technical communicators, responsible for authoring and publishing technical content to help users, take advantage of some of these web innovations to make our help systems better? Which innovations are really worth paying attention to? Which are more relevant and worthwhile for technical writers to leverage? I will address some of these questions in upcoming posts in this series.

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