The techcomm robots are coming… let’s throw a party!

TL;DR : Technology isn’t going to make technical communicators redundant, but it might be our only chance of staying relevant and giving users the help content they need.

Last November, I gave a keynote speech at the Voice of Customer Colloquium at the University of Aveiro, in Portugal. I spoke about the potential for massive disruption in technical communication as a result of new technologies. With technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Natural Language Generation, and chat-bots all threatening to do our jobs more quickly, more cheaply, and more effectively, why wouldn’t technical communicators be fearful about what the future holds?

After detailing the various ways technology is conspiring to take our jobs, I was met with looks of shock, consternation, and many raised eyebrows. But the point I was making wasn’t that we need to dig out our best interview clothes, or even that our new role will be simply to oil the machines that take our jobs. Instead, these technologies are actually creating opportunities for us, and they will create even more demand for skilled technical communicators.

Jody Byrne giving a keynote in a lecture theatre at the University of Aveiro, Portugal

A reality check

Even though things like Natural Language Generation can produce reasonably decent results, they’re only good at producing the kind of content that users don’t necessarily want any more. Who wants to read hundreds of pages of PDF user guide these days?* The reality is that people want intelligent user assistance, consisting of short, focused snippets of information delivered at the right time, and in a culturally appropriate way. They want in-app help, videos, graphics, and they want interactive help that tells a story. We’re doing more and more of this at SAP.

The truth is, we don’t need to fight technology to save our jobs, because technology isn’t threatening our jobs.

What we really need to worry about

This shift in user expectations means technical communicators must change if they want to stay relevant. Technology is simply accelerating this process. The arrival of new technologies is also giving us the chance to redefine what it means to be a technical communicator. New technologies on their own can’t do very much. Someone needs to design the content and the outputs. Someone needs to craft the chat-bot conversations that will guide users to the answers they need, taking into account the psychological, linguistic, and cultural peculiarities of online communication. Someone needs to create engaging stories using different media to explain complex functionality and processes to users. This is why we’ll always need human technical communicators. Computers don’t do creativity; humans do. And I reckon most of us will be happily approaching retirement before we get to the point where computers are a serious threat.

The truth is, we don’t need to fight technology to save our jobs, because technology isn’t threatening our jobs. The challenge facing us is to embrace these new technologies and learn new skills so that we can take advantage of the opportunities they provide. Only then can we provide our users with the user assistance they actually want.

* In all of my conversations with customers over the years, I’ve only met one, and he said it was because he wasn’t able to search for answers within videos as easily as he could with a PDF.