The future of Technical Communications: 2021 and beyond

After 2020 we should all give up making predictions! Who'd have thought a year ago, that we'd be struggling to get on top of a highly infectious virus that according to the World Health Organization's Covid-19 page has so far:

  • Infected over 81,000,000
  • Killed nearly 1,800,000
But why let old habits die? Check your social media feeds around this time of year, and you'll see lots of people reflecting on the previous year and looking forward to how the next year will make them better people.

I'm not doing that. Instead, I want to reflect on what the help writing tools available to Technical Writers must do to help them achieve their objectives well beyond 2021.

So what are these predictions that seem so hard to achieve?
  • Localization inside Technical Writing applications
  • Support for smaller (non-laptop) devices

Localization Inside Technical Writing Applications

Let me introduce this section with a deliberately provocative opinion. Localization support inside technical writing applications doesn't exist. Sure applications can successfully host non-localized and localized content together. They even support tagging of content to allow the delivery of specific sections of the source content. Even synonyms can be used for regional language differences (e.g. colloquialisms, US / UK English).

But here's the thing. None of this functionality is fit for purpose when it comes to real localization. Localization involves a separate process, normally performed outside the help tool, and often involving a separate application. So why is this?

Authoring tool functionality hasn't kept up with the demands placed on Technical Writers. Throw in the fact that the automated translation technology available is arguably still in relative infancy, and you have the answer. Authoring tools and localization applications have a place in a Technical Writer's toolkit, but so does a localization expert to check for context and possible errors.

So if the technology isn't good enough, why not just do away with the automated translation technology and rely on humans?

Firstly localization tools have come a long way in recent years. Think back to when Google Translate was launched in 2006. Back then it translated each word one at a time. These days it looks at entire sentences to try and capture the context. It's far from perfect, but it is a lot better than in those early days. Other localization tools offer support to remember manual changes to translated changes to prevent future translations from making the same mistakes.

Secondly machine translation is so much cheaper. Running source files through an application first and only then getting a localization expert to check the output is a lot cheaper. Sorry translators. You'll have to adapt to compete with that. If you do, you'll never be short of work. Until the localization tools become better, we'll always need good localization experts to check their work. And let's face it, that's a long way off.

But why can't the authoring and localization work be performed by the same application? If one of the vendors decided to buy a localization company and incorporate its functionality into their own authoring application, they'd surely be onto a winner. This may be beyond some vendors, and would involve substantial effort for those that could, but it would be a massive step forward.

Support for Smaller (Non-Laptop) Devices

To date there is only notional support for authoring applications on tablets. I've seen them used on iPads, but never on phones. There is a good reason for the latter, but the increasing use of cloud applications, faster internet speeds, and larger screen sizes means the time is coming where this could no longer be an issue.

Even if running an application on an iPad, user interfaces can be clunky. That's because they were never designed to run on those devices. The fact that people can and do, shows there's a need. I've lost count of times when I'm on a crowded commuter train and wishing i could use a tablet rather than my laptop. With the every evolving workforce, many of whom don't use laptops unless absolutely necessary, the need for applications that run on smaller devices is becoming ever more important.

Once again this would involve a major player to devote resources to such a project, and would involve a major redesign of the UI to support taps, drags, and swipes.

It is most unlikely any of these predictions will happen anytime soon, which is a great shame. It would send a strong message to the technical communication industry that they were taking technical writing seriously.