Here comes the future: got your superpowers ready?

What’s the future of technical communication? I’ve asked that question on this blog, and now the Transformation Society has taken it up.

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Image source:Transformation Society

Last month Ray Gallon, someone I’ve known and respected for years, and Neus Lorenzo, a new acquaintance, undertook a study called Probing Our Future. They held a workshop (which I did not attend) to frame the question, and last week they followed it up with a webinar and a Twitter chat (which I did attend).

I found the webinar to be a blur of information and ideas. (Remember, I hadn’t attended the workshop.) Things started coming into focus when I reviewed the webinar slides and when I joined in the Twitter chat. Where the workshop seemed to be full of abstraction (what can we dream of doing?), the chat questions were more practical (how do we do this?).

What “Probing Our Future” is probing

The new project poses the first question — “What’s the future?” — and then poses another: How can we equip ourselves to meet that future?

In the words of Ray Gallon, the project is designed to “provide a glimpse into the realm of the possible in an accelerating future that is rushing up on us faster than we imagine.”

During the workshop Ray, Neus, and their collaborators came up with a list of 7 “superpowers” that’ll enable technical communicators to succeed in the information-rich world of the future. A few examples:

  • Flying – quick thinking, creativity, adaptability
  • Time Travel – the ability to change, remake things, do more with less
  • Mind reading – collaborating, breaking down silos, understanding co-workers and customers

It all sounds pretty fantastic.

Personalized content? Using our mind-reading superpower, we’ll understand our customers and deliver exactly what they need.

Internet of things, with 30 billion machines flinging data at and past each other? We can be the ones who wrangle that data into meaningful content.

Dream meets reality

Yet I wonder: As changing conditions drive us to flex our superpowers, will there be a disconnect between the dream and the reality. Do we really know what we’re getting into? How super are our powers, really?

As I asked two years ago, is our profession entering a world where everyone is a specialist and no one is a generalist? While anyone can master a few technologies, it’s impossible to be proficient in all of them.

Next, even if we’re all superheroes, will anyone pay us to be superheroes? Much of the work we’re paid to do is still old-style content in old-style formats like HTML and PDF. How can we let our employers (and potential employers) know that we have the skills to tackle their new challenges? Or will our community, because of the demands of the marketplace, consist of a few high-flying heroes and a lot of mild-mannered Clark Kents?

Finally, how do we train everyone to develop the new skills — and the new mindset — needed for success?

I look forward to pondering these questions, and many more, as the Probing Our Future project proceeds.

I’m sure there’ll be follow-up events as Ray and Neus pursue their research. I encourage all of you to come aboard and take part. Here again are links to the webinar and the Twitter chat.

This is a good discussion — well worth having. The more who are involved, the greater the likelihood of the project succeeding.

I’d also like to hear from Ray, Neus, and others who’ve been taking part in the study. I know I didn’t do it justice in this short summary. What are your thoughts on the approach, the methodology, and the overall value of the study?

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6 thoughts on “Here comes the future: got your superpowers ready?

  1. Mark Baker

    As far as personalized content is concerned, we have had the technology to do it for 20 years. That is not where the difficulty lies. The difficulty is that we don’t have enough information to do it.Even Google, that knows so much about our digital lives, can make effective choices of stories to suggest to us in Google Now. It may know what we are looking at, but it is still lousy at guessing why we are looking at them and of extrapolating what we might want to look at next.

    But the real problem is not that we don’t know what the customer is looking for (though we don’t, and that’s a problem). The real problem is that, a good deal of the time, the customer does not know what they’re looking for. You cannot automate the response to a request that the requester cannot articulate.

    There is no content vending machine, anymore than there is a Nurnberg Funnel. Content is a landscape to be explored. (Though obviously a secondary landscape, subservient to the primary landscape of the real world.) We would serve our customers much better with simple things like better signage and more recognizable landmarks than by trying to concoct fancy navigation tools that rely on more information that either we or they have.

    Reply
  2. Larry Kunz Post author

    Thanks, Mark. Picking up on one thing you said: “You cannot automate the response to a request that the requester cannot articulate”….

    I think we can at least guess, based on analytics (where the customer has gone before when in similar circumstances) and on our knowledge of the task at hand. And because we can do that, we can — as you say — provide appropriate signage and landmarks to help the customer go where they need to go.

    Reply
    1. Mark Baker

      Right, we can say, if you are here, based on what other people have done and what we know about the subject, here are the places you most likely want to go next. That you can do with a static hypertext.

      If you want to add in what you individaully have done in the past or the full path that you have taken to get here are inputs to those potential paths, that requires something interactive.

      The questions regarding the second option are:

      1. Does this option open up more potential paths than we would otherwise have know about based only on what other people have done and what we know about the task.

      2. Does knowing what this user has done in the past or the full path they took to get to this point allow us to remove certain suggestions are clearly irrelevant?

      3. Supposing the answer to 2 is yes, does doing so clearly improve the user experience in a significant way.

      I’m pretty sure that in most cases the answer to 1 is no.

      Number 2 strikes me as tricky. You may be able to guess that certain paths are more probably, but who is to say that user does not have a new assignment today? There may be some cases where you can narrow down what you show them based on your knowing what equipment they have. (Thought then you make if very difficult for them to answer questions about the potential benefits of upgrading or buying adds ons.)

      As to 3: if they frequently visit the content, is moving stuff around a good idea, or does it just interfere with their ability to navigate a familiar landscape?

      For tech comm, there is also this factor: If it comes to shopping or watching TV shows, the more often you have done something in the past, the more likely you are to do the same again in the future. But when it comes to tech comm this does not hold. After a few repetitions, you learn how to do the thing and you don’t need to look it up any more. You are more likely to come back to the docs looking for how to do something new.

      I’ve spent a lot of time in the past trying to figure out how to do effective interactive content. I’ve also had to struggle with a lot of other people’s attempts to do the same. I have come to the conclusion that in the general case, content needs to just stand still.

      Reply
  3. Ray

    Guys, the point is, we’ll never be able to guess what the customer really wants to do, for all the reasons Mark pointed out. Not only that, but each person has different gaps in their knowledge, so other peoples’ behaviour is not a serious predictor of what any individual will do.

    That’s why personalized information needs to be an offer – a selection of things that a person can choose from on the basis of his or her instinct of the moment. That’s where taxonomies come in.

    Also, AI can learn a lot about a person’s state of mind – or emotional state. And based on that, when a customer makes a selection, what’s served up can be a version constructed in a tone or power relationship appropriate to that emotional state – soothing if the person is angry or frustrated, energizing if they seem ready to give up, or sad, or defeated, etc. Same information, different tone.

    These sorts of things are possible with today’s technologies, but as Mark points out, we need better AI to get the information fine grained enough. We’re getting there, but we’re not there yet.

    Reply
    1. Mark Baker

      “That’s why personalized information needs to be an offer – a selection of things that a person can choose from on the basis of his or her instinct of the moment. That’s where taxonomies come in.”

      I’m not sure if “personalized” is the right word here. A smorgasbord is not personalized, except by the diner. Personalization seems to imply that it is the publisher who narrows the selection, rather than the reader.

      We do need a selection that a person can choose from, but I would say that that is why we need hypertext. I can think of a few limited cases in which I have used a taxonomy to locate information (all of them having to do with narrowing down a list of products in an online store) but far and away my most common tools are search and following links.

      AI is getting better, though I think it is too soon to be optimistic about it going all the way. But I have to say that the idea of an AI changing its tone in reaction to its perception of my mood strikes me a really creepy. I can’t imagine that every getting out of the uncanny valley. Not to mention that it will create enormous frustration of the who moved my cheese variety.

      But fundamentally this all strikes me as trying too hard. The content community keeps on stubbornly wanting to skip the most successful form of information discovery ever created: plain old hypertext. I reason, I am guessing, is the it involves the surrender of the power to direct the user. In the paper world, the writer and the publisher were in the driver’s seat. In the hypertext world, the reader is in the driver’s seat. Customization and AI seem to promise to put the publisher back in the driver’s seat. I think it is a false promise, a solution in search of a problem. Hypertext works. We should learn to create it.

      Reply
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