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Accelerating changes in Technical Communication - An environment for innovation

By Tony Self

Something quite transformative is happening under our noses. The things that people choose to read information from are developing at an astonishing speed. Science fiction from ten years ago seems to be going into production now. These changing reading preferences are going to have a huge impact on technical communication.

No-one's buying personal computers

If you walk into a typical technology store, you will be dazzled by an extraordinary range of "computing devices". Notice how I used the term "computing devices"? Four years ago, I would have used the term "computers", but that term has lost its acuity. Gartner reported, in June 2013, that desktop and notebook personal computer sales had dropped 10% on the previous year, but tablet sales had increased by 68%. In 2014, it is expected that 289 million PCs will be sold, compared with 276 million tablets. But these figures are dwarfed by mobile phone sales of 1.9 billion. In other words, almost 90% of computing devices sold are not "traditional" personal computers.

Price could well be a driver. In July 2013, Australian retailer JB Hi Fi were offering desktops for under AUD600, laptops for under AUD400, tablets for AUD200, and smart phones for AUD100.

It is becoming more difficult to dismiss these figures as being of little relevance to technical communication, and simply belonging to the realm of retail and consumers, as enterprise computing (computers in the workplace) is also dramatically shifting. One new challenge for enterprise computing is "BYOD - Bring Your Own Device". The proportion of computing devices bought by enterprises compared to consumers is dropping dramatically (35% to 28% over the next four years), and enterprises are having to develop policies for connected, personally-owned devices being used in the workplace.

And eBooks haven't been factored into this picture, as they are not considered to be computing devices. In January 2013, the Pew Research Center released the results of a study that showed that the percentage of US adults owning an eBook was the same as for those owning a tablet. I'll get back to eBooks later.

For technical communicators, these facts and figures raise some potentially embarrassing questions. For what reading medium are we writing content? Paper? Personal computer? iPad? eBook? Smart phone? The consumer seems to be telling us that the preferred reading device is a smart phone or a tablet, but technical writers seem to be focussed towards PDF - a format largely unsuitable for smart phones and tablets, because it does not incorporate "reflow". The 2012 WritersUA Skills and Technology Survey of user assistance authors revealed that PDF was considered the most valued UA technology, with 83% of respondents nominating the format as very valuable or invaluable.

It sounds incredible, but the iPad (considered to be the first mass-market consumer tablet computer) was released in 2010. The impact of tablet and mobile computers over such a short timeframe has been stunning.

Globally installed computing devices (Morgan Stanley)

iPhones are not the dominant smart phone platform

The iPhone was released in 2007, and the first Android phone in 2008. The iPhone is, of course, produced by Apple, a company known for marketing and image management almost as much as for innovation. Android was established in 2003 as an open-source project to develop a standard mobile handset operating system, albeit backed by big industry participants such as Google. The Android operating system is a development of the Linux computer operating system. Being essentially an open source project, Android doesn't engage in marketing, although the hardware vendors using Android certainly promote the OS.

The marketing power of Apple leads many people to assume that iPhone and iOS are dominant in the smart phone market. The reality is quite different. A Gartner study in May 2013 showed that Android is used in 74% of mobile phones, while iOS is only in 18%.

From a technical communication perspective, designing content to suit the iPhone could be a poor use of resources if that effort was at the expense of designing for Android.

Google Glass

While we are starting to focus our attentions onto the impact of tablets and phones, we may miss another important move in reading preferences towards "wearable technology". The most well-known product in this category is Google Glass, which could be described as a smart phone worn like a pair of spectacles. It currently costs about twice the price of a fully-featured smart phone, and incorporates all of those features: GPS, still and video camera, Internet connection, voice activation, social media, and (perhaps an afterthought?) telephony. The user interface centres around a "head-up display (HUD)", where the display is projected onto a small glass plate in the upper right corner of the user's field of vision. To the user, the display appears on be superimposed on the wall, or on the sky... on top of the real world.

Google isn't the only company working in this space. GlassUp, Telepathy One, Epson Moverio, Vuzix M100, EyeTap and Recon Jet are all products in the same genre.

In the same way that technical writers need to take into account that mobile devices are a preferred medium for many users, consideration also needs to be given to the possibility of rapid adoption of "head-up displays". (Interestingly, many technical communicators have encountered "HUDs" decades ago; they became commonplace in military aircraft in the 1970s, and in commercial aircraft at the start of the millennium. Some European passenger cars now incorporate them, and a "HUD" motorcycle helmet is commercially available.) If we are developing content delivery strategies now, we need to be aware that in three or four years some documentation may be best delivered on a layer above reality.

Augmented Reality

"Augmented Reality (AR)" is a term that describes a digital overlay over the real world. Many current applications of AR use the smart phone as the platform. You point the phone camera at an object in the real world (a package, a shop, a building, a geographical feature) and information about the real world object is superimposed over the image in the phone's display.

More sophisticated AR applications use animations, which seems to be tailor-made for repair and assembly instructions. In fact, for nearly every type of documentation outside of software, augmented reality offers innovative and potentially much more effective alternatives to conventional documentation. We need, however, both imagination and entrepreneurism to make it a reality. Some technical communicators have already done so, in manuals for cars, tanks, medical devices, and printers. As Juergen Lumera concluded in Is Augmented Reality the future of technical documentation?, "We have reached a state where it is no longer a question if it will happen because it is already there".

The Importance of Metadata

One of the features critical to delivery of content to the media apparently preferred by readers is "metadata". "Metadata" means information about information. It is being mentioned in the news a lot at the moment in the context of information about phone calls that the US National Security Agency is collecting and storing. In this context, the metadata is the information about the phone call, not the content of the phone call itself. That "aboutness" information is the number called from and to, the time and duration of the call, the location the call was made from, and so on.

In documentation, metadata is critical if the content needs to be manipulated in some way by software. If an "Interactive Electronic Technical Manual (IETM)" displayed on a cockpit screen of a Boeing is to only show content specific to that individual aircraft, the content must have metadata to identify that specific content.

Airlines now use an Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) reading device to display checklists, troubleshooting procedures, maps, and charts.

If an abbreviated form of content is to be shown as a checklist within Google Glass, the content must have metadata to allow this abbreviation. If content needs to be formatted to display professionally on a smart phone and a desktop PC, it must use semantic mark-up (a type of intrinsic metadata) so that formatting appropriate to the device can be automatically applied.

Facets, Profiles and Filters

Help authors have been delivering topic-based online documents since the 1990s, but until recently, only to personal computers. When screen resolution improved beyond 640 x 480 pixel VGA and 50 dpi, there was sufficient screen "real estate" to include a table of contents "(TOC)", which has since become the defining feature of Help systems. Smart phones have screen resolutions and sizes that are unsuited to a conventional TOC, and alternative navigation strategies, such as faceted navigation, are often preferable. Faceted navigation allows the user to choose what sort of content is displayed based on metadata tags or categories. For example, repair, lighting, carriage selections for a train maintenance manual might result in a list of the procedures relating specifically to replacing the lights in rail carriages being displayed.

Example of filtered content in online newspaper

Facets rely on metadata, and faceted navigation is closely related to "profiling", or "filtering": removing or flagging content according to the audience or product. Facets and profiles are an invention of the online world, and have no paper equivalent. Mainstream online newspapers, such as The Guardian Australia Edition are starting to use user-defined filtering, as in a recent application where readers could choose to reduce the amount of Royal Baby coverage in their own version of the paper.

New Ideas for New Content Challenges

The challenges presented by the changes in computing preferences (which are not unique to technical communicators, of course) are being tackled through innovative and often stunningly brilliant ideas. HTML5 and CSS3 are responses from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to the challenge of delivering Web content and applications to multiple devices. These are technological advances, but there are also methodological innovations.

"Responsive Web Design (RWD)" is not really a technical solution, but a different way of approaching content delivery that takes advantage of new HTML5 and CSS3 features. Before "RWD", the challenge of delivering to mulitiple devices was addressed by producing multiple outputs from a single source. For example, in the Help authoring space, RoboHelp can produce output reformatted to suit iPad, Kindle Fire, Desktop, iPhone, Android smart phone, and Samsung Galaxy tablet. This means that six different outputs are produced, with a "browser sniffer" script employed to identify the user's reading device and redirect to the version of the output most appropriate.

The flaw in the multiple output approach is not too hard to identify. Each time a new category device comes to market, a new output needs to be added to the deliverables. Remembering that tablets have been on the market for less than four years old, this means that the size of the deliverables will balloon, and that it will be necessary to continually chase the latest device specifications. "RWD" takes a simpler path.

"RWD" adapts the content to suit the specification of the "viewport", rather than the brand or model of the device. The format has different "breakpoints", where the layout changes as different viewport size limits are reached. So on a 1200 pixel wide viewport, a page of content may be displayed in three columns. When the viewport is under 1000 pixels, the content may be displayed in two columns, and when under 800 pixels, the navigation may change from side to top, and the content rearranged into a single column.

The RWD approach works most effectively in concert with another philosophy: "mobile first". It is the "mobile first" philosophy that many technical communicators will find to be the greatest challenge. The idea is that content should be designed primarily for display on the smallest reading device, typically a mobile phone. If the content won't fit, or is too complex, or is too long, then it is omitted from all deliverables. If it's not needed for mobile, then it's also not needed for desktop.

This "mobile first" approach is significantly different from the "graceful degradation" approach previously used in single source publishing, where content was designed for one main medium, and the features were dropped off for the other output media. So dropdown links could be incorporated where the primary medium was HTML Help, but would have to be omitted from the PDF rendition. The technique tended to be to design in as many features as possible, and drop them off if not supported by the output medium. "Mobile first" turns this approach on its head.

There are many conventions, accepted wisdoms, preferences and assumptions that technical communicators will need to turn on their heads. This is as exciting as it is confronting.

What about EPUB?

Although there is some convergence with hybrid tablet and eBook readers (such as Kindle Fire), there are some very important developments in the eInk display technology underpinning most eBook readers, as well as the rising importance of the EPUB standard. These two areas, eInk and EPUB, can be viewed as something very distinct from mobile computing.

eBook readers are low cost devices (currently starting from USD50) that are competing directly against the paper book. Novels are ideal for eBook reading, because they are primarily text based, and the "affordance" is good. Cheap eBook readers are black and white only, and don't display photos very well, but this is not much of an impediment for novels or other forms of document where the words are the most important elements. "Affordance" refers to the convenience that a device affords the user; an eBook reader has features that paper does not, such as resizable text, audio readback, and low weight, and has advantages over tablets, such as being able to read in direct sunlight, and a paper-like reflective display rather than a light-emitting display.

eInk Displays - Same cost as a Mars Bar

The eInk display technology is quite remarkable; it is essentially a sheet of acetate coated with electronically-controllable ink. Although controllers and displays are currently packaged into an "eBook reader", there is no reason why the acetate cannot be separate, and a controller plugged in when required. So the inside of a hatch could include an extremely low cost (a couple of dollars) eInk display, ready to be connected to a processor. That processor could be a mobile phone, or a special USB stick device.

The transformative nature of this concept on technical communication is perhaps obvious. The inside of a car's glovebox could have an eInk coating with the car's computer delivering the driver's handbook. The inside of a switchboard door could have a sheet of eInk paper ready to display the fault diagnosis chart, a wiring diagram, or repair procedures. The hatch on the head of wind turbine 100 metres above the ground in the sea off the Danish coast could include an eInk sheet that the technician could plug a USB controller into, with that USB containing the entire technical library for the turbine.

Environment for Innovation

In an article In the post-PC era, is Microsoft toast? in The Age newspaper (July 2013), technology writer Timothy Lee documented Microsoft's attempts to break into the tablet computer market six or seven years before the Apple iPad, and attempts to introduce a mobile version of Windows years before the iPhone. Lee surmises that Microsoft failed in these attempts because it "tried to offer the full capabilities of a PC in a mobile form factor, producing an interface that was too cluttered and confusing for small screens". Lee points out that although tablets are less powerful than full-featured PCs, they are simple and cheap, and this provides an environment for innovation in mobile software. There is a parallel here in technical communication; we shouldn't be attempting to offer fully-featured, layed out, traditional, paged manuals with complex formatting on a mobile form factor. We should be innovating, and finding better ways of communicating technical information through the mobile platform, through EPUB, through augmented reality, through HUD. And we should be using semantic authoring, metadata, facets, responsive Web design, mobile first and standards as tools.

The key may well be to abandon our preconceptions, completely revise our approaches, and actively innovate. As Albert Einstein said, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

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Originally published...

This article was originally published in Communicator, the quarterly journal of the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators in Autumn 2013.