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Results of the survey about fizzled trends: Every trend is still with us

Series: Trends to follow or forget

by Tom Johnson on Feb 8, 2022
categories: technical-writing innovation

Recently I posted a short survey trying to identify trends that faded or fizzled. About 300 people took the survey. As I was creating the survey, I thought there would be some clear trends that failed. To my surprise, I learned that anything that once surfaced as a documentation trend is still "hanging in there" as a common practice in the field. About the only thing you can say is that tech comm has become more fragmented, plural, diverse, and multifaceted than ever. There are superseded technologies, but apparently no non-trends.

Dashboard of results

Here’s the dashboard of results from 300+ respondents:

Results of survey about fizzled trends

Try to think of something that is no longer a tech comm trend, and people will be like, “I still do that!” “I still use that!” For example, in a WTD Slack thread, I said surely no one is still creating CHM files. And of course someone immediately replied that just that morning, a client had asked for a CHM file.

This left me with some post-survey analysis to do.

Was the survey flawed?

First, the survey results could have been flawed due to poor wording or lack of definitions for the trends. To try to make the survey as short and quick as possible (doable in one minute), I shortened each trend to one word or phrase. However, this could have made the trends less clear. One of the respondents said, “some of the terms are new to me. short descriptions might help the uninitiated. Dynamic personalization?? Intelligent content??” However, I did add an “unsure” option so people could skip trends they weren’t familiar with.

The tradeoff in any survey is length versus participation. If you create a long survey that takes more than 5 minutes to finish, the completion rates drop dramatically. Shorten it to about 1-2 minutes, and the number of respondents increases so much that it might offset any problems with clarity through sheer numbers. 193 people saying that “Intelligent content” is still a trend is more reassuring 10 people saying it, even though I didn’t define the term. That said, quick one-liner definitions would have been a good idea.

Also, some of the options might have been problematic. In one instance, I listed a trend as “Stack Overflow’s approach to example-driven documentation.” 191 people listed that trend high enough that it ranked in between “Hanging in there” and “Still going strong.” However, I was actually referring to Stack Overflow’s abandoned effort at “Documentation,” which you can read about at Sunsetting Documentation or on my blog, Why Stack Overflow’s Documentation effort failed – a few thoughts from a technical writer’s perspective. Most people just assumed I was referring to Stack Overflow’s Q&A format as a medium of documentation, not their official Documentation experiment. I would agree that Stack Overflow itself is still going strong as a means of documentation (at least in some form).

At any rate, like I said, the survey didn’t force everyone to rate each trend. I always include either a N/A or unsure option in surveys.

Now, to the conclusion. Everything that was ever a trend is still a common practice. That means we’re growing ever more plural, fragmented, diverse, variegated, multifaceted, etc., than ever in the field. There aren’t any standard tools anymore, and there are many different approaches to documentation. This might make it harder for teachers to prepare students for the job market, and frustrate questions from students about what tools to learn.

But tech comm has long struggled with plurality. This is one reason why the STC Summit is such a challenging conference. There are as many different tracks as there are emphases in the field: usability, information architecture, content strategy, management, API documentation, academic fields, corporate communication, rhetoric, medical/science writing, tooling, hardware documentation, community building, knowledge management, and more. This is one reason why the WTD conferences focus more on software documentation.

Given that the tech comm field casts such a wide umbrella, it’s no wonder that all of these trends would still find a home and place by different groups in different domains. But it is perplexing to think that trends don’t come and go; they stick around gum on the sidewalk. You never really get rid of it. It just blends in to the cement.

One reassuring aspect of this conclusion is that you most likely won’t be left behind in the trends game. Maybe you’re not working in docs-as-code and building your output on the fly from the command line. Maybe you’re still working in Microsoft Word. You know what? So are lots of other people!

Where this leaves me

Where does this leave me in terms of my presentation? Like I said, I initially wanted to gather some info about trends that fizzled, so that instead of looking at the current and future trends, I could look back in time and learn from trends that failed. Since no trends failed, the only pivot I could make is to analyze my own path through various trends. Rather than making an industry-wide statement about this or that trend fizzling and why, I can describe only my own reasons for following and then abandoning a trend.

As I looked back through my blog (which started in 2006), I can trace my path through a number of trends. Some trends I embraced and continued, while others I abandoned. Here’s a list of the personal trends I can draw a path through (and which I’ll explore in this series):

  1. HATs and single-sourcing
  2. Wikis and crowdsourcing
  3. Faceted filtering
  4. Screencasting
  5. Quick reference guides
  6. WordPress and web CMSs
  7. DITA
  8. Content strategy
  9. Scrum
  10. Marcom and techcomm
  11. Every page is page one
  12. API documentation
  13. Git and GitHub
  14. Docs as code
  15. Remote work

I’m still refining this list, but I realized that I’ve been a constant experimenter throughout my career. In some ways, I am a microcosm of tech comm trends.

Upcoming presentation

My new presentation description, planned for STC India 2022, is as follows:

Trends to follow or forget

When we focus on trends, we often look at the present and how current trends might affect our tech comm work. But we can also look in the opposite direction: at trends that faded or fizzled, and ask why. Looking at trends that faded, especially the reasons why, might help us better evaluate current trends. In this presentation, I’ll look at a number of tech comm trends that I’ve either followed or abandoned over the years, and why they failed for me. Sometimes the trends were superseded by better technologies, but other times they fizzled due to other reasons. Note that my tour through these trends focuses on personal reasons for following or forgetting trends rather than making objective assertions about mass-scale adoption or rejection across the industry.

Follow the posts in this series (see the sidebar) to explore each of these trends in more depth.

Next post

Continue to the next post in this series: HATs and single-sourcing.

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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