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2020 Developer documentation survey

by Tom Johnson on Dec 31, 2019
categories: api-doc technical-writing

Around this time of year, I tend to look at tech comm trends for the previous and upcoming year. As I surveyed other tech comm posts about trends, two recent research efforts articles stand out as informative and research-based. Both of these articles were published in the December 2018 issue of Intercom: Saul Carliner's Tech Comm Census results, and Scott Abel's Benchmarking Survey results. Although informative, I wanted to see data more specific to developer documentation, a specialized niche within tech comm, so I decided to create my own survey.

Saul Carliner’s Tech Comm Census results

In a Tech Comm Census, Saul Carliner (and PhD student Yuan Chen from Concordia University) gathered responses from 676 respondents to about 60 questions. You can read the findings in these four articles (STC login required):

You can also listen to a podcast from 10 Minute Tech Comm with Saul here.

Acknowledging the survey’s limitations, Saul writes:

As studies go, the census was a behemoth. It took at least 30 minutes to complete and asked nearly 60 questions. But even with that many questions, we could have asked more. For example, the census did not ask questions about the audiences served by technical communicators. That’s an important question, as some people have written that it is gravitating toward engineers, while others see the future in highly connected, end-user documentation, like a content Internet-of-Things.

But that’s just one of the limits. Another is the representativeness of our study. We primarily (though not exclusively) recruited from STC and 591 of the participants are STC members, representing 13% of the membership. As the largest professional organization serving the field, that’s a natural source to find technical communicators. But not all technical communicators belong to STC, so the concern arises about the extent to which the participants are representative of the broader population of technical communicators, even though we recruited outside of STC. (“A Note from the Guest Editor,” Dec 2018 Intercom)

In other words, though comprehensive, the census doesn’t probe the audience that tech writers are creating content for, and the census also slants heavily towards the STC population. The STC helped promote participation in the survey, and 591 of the respondents were STC members. The STC versus WTD populations are somewhat distinct, and it’s hard to know how many respondents are creating developer docs.

Scott Abel’s Industry Benchmarking Survey

Scott Abel’s Technical Communication Industry Benchmarking Survey gathers information about tools, trends, technologies, and other details from hundreds of veteran technical communicators. Scott writes,

This article provides a high-level snapshot of the current state of the technical communication industry. It summarizes what we learned from survey data submitted online by 600+ professional communicators, more than half of whom are veteran technical writers, having worked in the field for 15 years or more. The respondents belong to teams of all sizes and configurations—40 percent work in a department with 10 or fewer co-workers, while 15 percent work on teams with 50 or more” (Survey Reveals Top Tools, Trends, and Technologies in Use in Technical Communication Teams).

We don’t know what percentage of respondents are STC versus WTD, or what percentage are involved in developer documentation versus other kinds of documentation. I think many of Scott’s respondents likely derive from the same audience as his website, The Content Wrangler, and conferences, such as Information Development World, which tends to focus on content strategy, enterprise content re-use, localization, chatbots, and more.

Relevant to my interests, the survey does mention APIs:

Fifty-eight percent of technical communication teams surveyed say they currently document APIs; 10 percent plan to in the future. The biggest challenges facing groups that document APIs include difficulties using software tools not optimized for ease-of-use or writing efficiency, and lack of experience.

And the survey finds that API documentation is a skill set in high demand:

Documenting application programming interfaces (APIs) is one of the most in-demand skill sets (40 percent) …

You can also read the results from Scott’s benchmarking survey in slide show format here. Or watch to a webinar via BrightTalk here.

Despite these thorough and informative surveys to gather insights in our field, I can’t help but feel like they’re missing more detail about trends taking place within the developer documentation space. Whenever tools are discussed in these surveys, the docs-as-code approach isn’t mentioned. Communities like Write the Docs seem non-existent. Other topics seem left out, such as how writers integrate with scrum teams, or whether they are auto-generating the OpenAPI spec or manually creating it. Are so many authoring groups really using FrameMaker and distributing PDFs?

Overall, I am not sure that these survey results depict the community of tech writers creating technical content for the developer community, so I wanted to gather some more data on my own to see how different the developer documentation community might differ from other communities. I created a survey of 50 questions and hope to gather responses from at least 200 people. I’ll leave the survey open for two months (until March 1, 2020) and promote it via my website and newsletter. I’ll limit the audience to only those creating docs for developer audiences.

You can take my developer documentation survey here.

You can see ongoing results here.

Post-survey analysis

For more details, see the following:

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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