Trends to
follow or forget

Analyzing reasons for embracing and/or abandoning 15 tech comm trends, and then applying the reasoning to assess the viability of present trends

By Tom Johnson / @tomjohnson

Slides: fizzled_trends

Survey about fizzled trends

Making sense of the responses

  • Poor wording or lack of definitions?
  • People's perceptions skewed?
  • Natural resistance to being outdated?
  • Anything that was ever a trend is here to stay. The trend makes sense in some context.
  • A plurality of trends, more diverse/fragmented field practices?

My approach to trends

  1. Abandon effort to make industry generalizations. Focus instead on my own experiences.
  2. Look at 15 major trends I participated in during past two decades. With each, answer 4 questions:
What is it?
Why I adopted it
Why I abandoned it
Current status

Overview of 15 trends

  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. GitHub and open-source
  14. Docs as code
  15. Remote work

Larger goal

Use inductive reasoning to discover principles related to trends that will allow us to assess the viability of current trends

1. HATs and single-sourcing

What is it? Single-source content, generate complete web output
Why I adopted it Produce both print and web content from the same source
Why I abandoned it Needed collaborative platform for community contributions
Current status Important because both PDF and web output still needed

2. Wikis and crowdsourcing

What is it? Allow anyone to edit and contribute. Distributes work to the crowd
Why I adopted it Worked at a company with lots of willing volunteers
Why I abandoned it Crowdsourcing doesn't work for docs
Current status Wikis popular internally. Externally, evolved into GitHub pull requests

3. Faceted filtering

What is it? Dynamically narrow down content based on filters
Why I adopted it Abundance of content online made findability critical
Why I abandoned it Facets not a clear fit for information products. Weak tool support
Current status Not common in docs. XML and web drifted apart

4. Screencasting

What is it? Short videos that show how to do a specific task
Why I adopted it Popularity of YouTube showed multimedia as a learning preference
Why I abandoned it Videos not well suited for developer docs, code how-to
Current status Still popular but not common TW output due to high production costs

5. Quick reference guides

What is it? Short 1-2 page guides that get users going on key tasks
Why I adopted it Easy way to make text-based information appealing
Why I abandoned it Getting started tutorials more common in dev docs
Current status Common for hardware products. Often the only thing users read

6. WordPress and web CMS's

What is it? Started out with blogging but evolved into a multipurpose platform
Why I adopted it Easy way to create & manage websites. Lots of plugins & themes
Why I abandoned it LAMP stack not supported in the enterprise. Cumbersome to update
Current status Still popular for websites, but not for docs


What is it? XML schema designed for documentation. Elements with rules
Why I adopted it Grew tired of using tools not designed for TWs
Why I abandoned it Markdown more common for developer tooling and workflows
Current status Used in large enterprises because most CCMS's require XML structure

8. Content strategy

What is it? Strategic analysis and planning about content. All the meta work around writing
Why I adopted it Recognized the strategy work behind writing docs. Writing is commodity
Why I abandoned it Strategy not as important as tactics. Success formula not a huge mystery
Current status Still popular. Lots of variation in what content strategists actually do

9. Scrum

What is it? Project methodology for agile. Short iterations, continuous integration
Why I adopted it Made it easier to work with Scrum-based engineering teams
Why I abandoned it Not a good fit for partially allocated resources
Current status Common project methodology but has many variants and adaptations

10. Tech comm and marcom

What is it? Documentation can be leveraged as a full-fledged marketing asset
Why I adopted it Thought it would be good fit for tech writer who also blogs
Why I abandoned it No openness about issues. Just release notes and tech tips
Current status Intersection between domains should focus on content re-use

11. Every page is page one

What is it? A style of writing that encourages standalone, modular articles
Why I adopted it Obvious that web landscape would be dominant space for information
Why I didn't abandon it Developers prefer lengthy pages -- they preserve context, allow Ctrl+F
Current status Web patterns becoming second nature, including doc styles

12. API documentation

What is it? Documentation proliferates with rise of web APIs
Why I adopted it Higher demand in job market, and REST APIs more accessible
Why I didn't abandon it Working on a code level is interesting and challenging
Current status Will continue to be popular because APIs dominate the web

13. Git and GitHub

What is it? Way to manage text files, allow distributed teams to collaborate.
Why I adopted it Follow same workflows as software dev because docs also live in code
Why I abandoned it Lack of community contributions. Complicated pre-release workflows
Current status Used mostly with docs-as-code tools and dev docs

14. Docs as code

What is it? Using more developer-centric tools and workflows for creating docs
Why I adopted it Allow developer SMEs to collaborate and participate in docs
Why I didn't abandon it Flexible and customizable, more enjoyable working in raw text
Current status Common in dev docs, though more robust tooling requires tools teams

15. Remote work

What is it? Discarding the workplace in favor of working remotely using virtual tools
Why I adopted it Mandated with pandemic, suits work of tech comm well
Why I abandoned it Hybrid model replaces WFH, social isolation lowers morale, community loss
Current status World events could propel us into virtual, metaverse-like model

Conclusions to draw?

1. What makes sense in one context might not make sense in another

2. Easier tools won't make non-writers willingly start writing docs

3. You're less likely to outgrow tools that are flexible, customizable, and hackable

4. To assess trends related to titles and roles, look at job postings for a reality check.

5. Trends start on the web before they make their way into tech comm

6. If you're working with developers, following their workflows, tools, and processes helps you connect with their world

Can these conclusions be used assess future trends?

Experiment: Assess whether fully remote work is here to stay or whether it's a temporary reconfiguration due to a time-bound event.

Extreme outcomes of 100% remote work?

  • Talent sourced from all over the globe
  • Workers who were once local now compete with workers living in cheaper areas. Pool of available writers grows.
  • Tech writers hired in plug-and-play model on a per project basis, like a service
  • Cost of labor comes down. Hourly rate changes from $60/hour to $20/hour
  • Tech writers move to less expensive areas to live off the lower wages. Urban hubs decay, rural areas come to life
  • Complete loss of company culture, team, morale

Can we assess this trend?

1. What makes sense in one context might not make sense in another.

Application: The post-pandemic world is a new context where previous models might no longer apply. Previously, fully remote workers were often contractors hired through outsourcing, and outsourcing didn't make local tech writers extinct. But in the context of a post-pandemic world, outsourcing might be more common because everyone would already be remote.

2. Easier tools won't make non-writers willingly start writing docs.

Application: Tech writing professions are here to stay because no matter the tooling, writing is a lot of work that non-writers just won't naturally start doing on their own. But the connection to remote work here isn't clear.

3. You're less likely to outgrow tools that are flexible, customizable, and hackable.

Application: Though not a tool, remote work offers much more flexibility and customization of schedules, location, family arrangements, and more. You can adapt your schedule to almost anything, attend virtual meetings, video conference from anywhere, interact with tools asynchronously, etc. The flexibility of the fully remote model suggests that it will win over models with more constraints.

4. To assess trends related to titles and roles, look at job postings for a reality check.

Application: Although many tech companies now offer permanent remote, it seems that most companies are offering hybrid models. Hybrid models would reduce the chances of a disruptive, globally distributed workforce and would keep things relatively the same. However, if permanent remote companies prove more competitive, they could accelerate the shift to remote work.

5. Trends start on the web before they make their way into tech comm.

Application: Look to engineers and web-centric tech companies as trendsetters. Many engineers seem suited to remote work because coding is a task requiring a lot of deep concentration and uninterrupted flow. Extended concentration is even more challenging to achieve given how social media has reduced our attention span dramatically. Most devs dislike meetings for the disruption and context switching. Remote work amplifies the isolation and might be a way engineers cling to possibilities for creative flow.

6. If you're working with developers, following their workflows, tools, and processes helps you connect with their world.

Application: If engineers prefer permanent remote, then tech writers (who interact mainly with engineers) should likely follow suit to match similar rhythms, workflows, tools, and preferences as engineers (at least in dev docs). Where engineers go, tech writers will follow.

Overall conclusion

It seems more likely than not that fully-remote work becomes the norm for tech companies in the future, but for the time being, most are adopting hybrid models.


Figure out how to excel in the remote work model now so that you can avoid burnout, zoom fatigue, social isolation, mental anxiety, lack of productivity, etc, in the future. Even if remote work doesn't stick, the techniques will make you more productive in the workplace anyway.


The end

Tom Johnson
[email protected]