Columns May/June 2020

Technical Communication: The Ultimate Pivot Role for Intelligent Customer Experience (ICX)

By Cruce Saunders

Each of us in technical communication has tremendous career options and opportunities before us that didn’t exist a decade ago. For years, technical communicators have built expertise in the skills that will drive the digital future: structured authoring, modular content design, content strategy, taxonomy, context-based content variation, multichannel publishing, content portability, and various engineering disciplines. As a result, after analyzing thousands of resumes in the space, we at [A] foresee technical communication as the logical pivot point to carry enterprises into next-generation customer experience (CX). The near-future of customer experience—and for many, the present—requires an object-oriented approach to organizing and assembling content as reusable objects rather than hard-coded, unstructured blobs.

Intelligent Customer Experience

Every day, publishing teams across the enterprise stretch content creation and management in new directions. Multiple touchpoints on today’s dynamic customer journeys have nudged us toward intelligent content and omnichannel production. Enterprises face pressure to generate more flexible customer experiences that assemble content in response to a customer’s changing context. We call this intelligent customer experience (ICX).

Customer journeys can start and transition to almost any touch point of customer-facing content. A purchase decision may start with voice assistance while walking, jump to a product video viewed on a smartphone at Starbucks, and continue with a brief session exploring customer reviews and support documentation on a tablet or laptop in the workplace. The customer interacts with a dazzling array of content types and channels as they interact with our organizations.

To survive and thrive in this new marketplace, we must shape our content and roles in totally new ways. We make content flexible enough to achieve real-time content personalization, which remains for most a still-distant objective.

Enterprise publishers deliver personalized journeys—not only through advanced tools and AI features but by transforming “chunky” content management into fluid customer experience management. This requires engineering the content itself and leans on the skills technical communicators have been building for decades.

Next-generation CX requires an expansive set of skills and instincts, from active management of content structure and semantics to applying strategic and engineering thinking to content. Technical communicators have been exercising many of the skills (especially structured authoring) for years, and technical communication is the logical pivot point to help create the future. Each technical communication professional has tremendous career opportunities that didn’t exist a decade ago.

Technical Communicators Blaze the Trail

Here at [A], we work with some of the largest and most complex publishers on earth, including many in the Fortune 50. Our clients work with content supply chains that cover various content sets, including marketing, technical communication, support, and in-product experiences, to name a few—and since the advent of smartphones and conversational assistants, we’ve had to adapt to ever-changing channels of communication within our marketplace.

Wherever we view content within an organization, we see the same challenges—except technical communicators are ahead of the game. Critical next-generation experiences come out of this interplay between technology and communication that technical communicators have been navigating for several years, as shown in Figure 1.

Connecting Humans and Machines Together

Technology has become the intermediary by which we experience most transactions with a company, including pre-sales and post-sales. Technical communicators connect communication between humans and machines.

For years, many in technical communication have been structuring documents—be it with home-grown XML, DITA, or semistructured approaches, such as Word and Markdown formats. Everyone in technical communication understands the importance of tags and other associative metadata, and many of the so-called documents that we author are actually snippets and parts that become components in assembled experiences, which come together from disparate sources. Because subdocument-level content is delivered to many different places, technical communication is leading the way due to the industry’s earned experience in omnichannel delivery over the past two decades. Many other departments within enterprises are still creating and managing content as unstructured “blobs” that are managed on a file-by-file basis.

Pathways Beyond Documentation

All of the disciplines and pathways we illustrate in Figure 2 are best coordinated under a content services organization (CSO), which is an orchestration layer for the application of standards and workflow among different authoring groups, including technical communication. We must standardize content creation and delivery to dynamically reach more people in more places. A content services organization involves a lot of new roles that are beyond documentation and marketing but are still within the realm of technical communication.

Figure 2 shows the many paths beyond traditional documentation that are now available to technical communicators who are ready to move into next-generation CX. These destinations are based on employment history that [A] derived from resumés. These paths all represent real people in the marketplace who have applied for a position in content engineering at [A] or whom we have screened when helping clients staff their new content services organization.

From [A]’s experience, technical communicators are finding futures in expanded career tracks, including:

  • Content operations: tools, workflows, and management
  • Content engineering: structure, platform, and semantics
  • Content strategy: audience, messaging, segmentation, calendar, and audit
  • Analyst: BA and requirements
  • Content design: conversational design, information architecture, and user experience
  • Product: sales engineer, product manager, product marketing, and product training
  • New forms of writing: microcopy, linked data and semantic writing, and conversational dialogues
  • Artificial intelligence (AI): natural language processing (NLP), natural-language generation (NLG), and machine learning

Here’s a closer look at some of these practices through the lens of content operations, content strategy, and content engineering. Together, they enable the bridge-building required in most organizations to free content from silos and render it more fluid.

Content Operations

Content operations is how an organization performs day-to-day management of content. It’s a chartered, permanent,
cross-functional organization that contains functions that orchestrate and interact with various distributed authoring groups, along with various stakeholder groups like communities of practice, councils, and committees. For many organizations, this is still an aspirational goal. It’s challenging to persuade somebody to manage content at a structural level on an ongoing basis with a broad purview over interoperable content sets. Technical communicators have the ability to think in those terms of content operations, which helps define and wire together content workflows and tools.

Content Engineering

Content engineering is the application of an engineering discipline to the design, acquisition, management, delivery, and use of content and deployed technologies to support a full content lifecycle. The practice of content engineering is the content’s technical owner—the “CTO” of content.

Structure

We need to be able to create variability by structuring content so it can be adapted to different user contexts through to different presentations.

Semantics

Semantics is the contextualization of our content structures. It defines the entities, associations, and relationships for a given piece of content, usually within metadata or a relational or graph database. Semantics is how machines can understand content, connections, and relationships. For example, semantics would determine how a piece of content can be associated with the segment it belongs to.

Content Strategy

The content strategist is the “CEO” of content, the role that directs the who, what, when, where, and why of content. In contrast, content engineers are focused on how content bridges gaps and connects to channels and customers. Content strategy also establishes a business justification for investments made in improving how content is handled and defines the metrics that will be used to measure progress against that plan. This strategic mindset will be familiar to many long-time technical communication professionals.

Embracing New Forms of Writing

Writing itself is taking on new forms all the time. One clear example is writing for conversational interaction. How can we prompt—based on customer response—the right suggested next step via a chatbot or voice interface? For most, that was not even on our radar a decade ago. How do we write short, action-oriented responses for given intents? How can we bridge that short-text form with traditional documentation?

What is old, however, is new again. Intent and response interactions are very familiar to technical communication professionals. Documentation authors know all about providing users with a series of ordered tasks in response to an error state and based on the telemetry of a software application. Conversational interaction scripts are just introducing new containers, writing, and markup approaches to the kind of user-education work that technical writers have been doing since the dawn of the interface.

Interfaces are now moving toward some form of personalization—some form of contextual-based content that is delivered in response to metadata triggers. Thus, even if we remain within the writing side of technical communication, there are many new and interesting opportunities.

For the most technically minded and those familiar with structured content authoring, there are some really compelling career paths that involve designing ontologies and making content sets available for AI, working with NLP, NLG, and predictive forms of machine learning—extending where language meets technology. Making content meet intelligent systems is a journey the whole market is on, and many more leaders are needed.

Gaining the Experience and Skills to Move Forward

To achieve career success in this expanded array of services, we need structured authoring experience. If we don’t have that first, we’re not “there yet” in terms of a foundation for next-gen solutions. We also need to gain skills and experience in eliciting clear definitions within business requirements, and we need experience generating modular presentations—this is essential for gaining funding support for a content services organization from budget stakeholders.

It also helps to learn about object-oriented thinking if we don’t have that in our repertoire. An object-oriented approach to organizing content requires reusable objects rather than hard-coded unstructured blobs. It enables content containers to be pointed to and from anywhere, manipulated, transformed, annotated, reused, and managed from a central location. Metadata is essential to this process.

Technical communicators need to be object-oriented thinkers and to be able to spread that DNA to other parts of the organization. Be proud of having a technical communication background. It’s a superpower, indeed. Let’s get to work making publishing smarter!

Publishers face many challenges creating a new operating model and orchestration approach for dynamic omnichannel content. This column addresses the changing content ecosystem and the evolving dynamics in the space. Questions, suggestions, or feedback? Email editorial@simplea.com.

 

Reference

The Content Order. n.d. “[A] Guide to The Content Services Organization.” Accessed 10 July 10, 2020. https://simplea.com/Treasury/The-Content-Order. Higbee, Jeanne L., and Emily Goff. 2008. Pedagogy and Student Services for Institutional Transformation: Implementing Universal Design in Higher Education. Minneapolis: Center for Research on Developmental Education and Urban Literacy.

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