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Intro to the series: Trends to follow or forget

Trends to follow or forget

by Tom Johnson on Feb 22, 2022 •
categories: technical-writing innovation

In this series on trends to follow or forget, I look at about 15 different trends that I've explored in my career as a technical writer. I divided up the content into individual articles to facilitate easier navigation and browsing.

About a month ago, an organizer for the STC India 2022 conference reached out to see if I would present about trends at their upcoming conference. I wasn’t so eager to present on trends given that I’d already focused on this topic so much. For example, I presented on trends and innovation in my 2015 tcworld India keynote. And in late 2020 I published a comprehensive trends analysis within developer documentation. Additionally, other than the trend of WFH and remote work, I wasn’t aware of any major trends brewing on the horizon (maybe the metaverse, or permanent WFH?). So I instead decided to pitch the idea of a presentation on trends that failed.

Surely there must be failed trends, right? I made a list of about 20 trends I could think of, sent out a really short survey to get some feedback, and was stunned to find that, according to nearly 300 respondents, most trends are still hanging around in some form or another. It’s hard to pinpoint a trend and say, See that? It was hyped up a lot in its day, then it totally failed. In my survey results, I concluded that nearly every tech comm trend that was ever a trend is still in practice today. There are no failed or fizzled trends. Some technologies supersede other technologies, but there aren’t really fizzled trends. I still find that hard to believe, but I didn’t want to do another survey.

Regardless of the validity of those survey results, I decided to pivot my approach and instead look at fizzled trends from a more personal angle: my own path through trends. I’ve been a tech writer since 2005, so admittedly, my visibility is a seventeen-year span of time within tech comm. And my perspective is strongly shaped by my experiences in only eight different companies throughout my career. Of course, I get a lot of interaction and feedback from others through my blog, and this input helps inform my views and thoughts. But pretty much everyone is in a similar boat as well: our views (even those of academics) are heavily shaped by our own experiences.

I could balance out my views with more research, such as scouring keywords in job postings over time, or reading through the entire corpus of tech comm journals and magazines for each instance of “trends,” but even that approach would be flawed. Instead, I want to paint broad strokes at a higher-level view, focusing on my own reasons for embracing or rejecting trends in my career.

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For each trend in this series, I’ll explain several points:

  • What was the trend?
  • Why I embraced it?
  • Why I abandoned it (if applicable)?
  • Current status
  • Takeaway

By no means have I abandoned every trend in this list. And my summaries of the “current status” is my personal sense of the trend, which might not be all that informed. Feel free to add to, correct, or otherwise provide feedback on anything here through the comments on each page.

I know this can be an explosive topic, as some people might get the impression that arguing that the trends that I’ve abandoned are outdated, but that’s not the case. One embraces or adopt various trends and technologies for different reasons, use cases, and publishing needs at the time. What makes sense in one context (company, audience, and domain) might not make sense in another.

My keynote presentation was on March 26, 2022, and I’ve included the recording in this series, but note that the keynote didn’t conclude my thoughts on the topic. Instead, it was another stop along the way.

In fact, the conference organizer wanted me to touch on how my learning from past trends shapes how I assess current and future trends. To this end, I’ve included takeaways from each trend that serve as a body of principles (gathered inductively) against which current and future trends might be assessed. After I analyze my participation in these 15 trends, I look at whether the principles I’ve learned could be used to better assess current trends.

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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.

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