Guest Author Angel Lafchiev
Instead of Going Extinct You Can Stay Relevant. Here Is How.
By definition, User Assistance is a general term for guided assistance to a user of a software product.(1) However, what I want to share with you could be relevant also with respect to providing information to users of non-software products and services.
Technological advancement makes virtually all professions evolve, eventually creating the need for new ones, while at the same time bringing some well-established professions to extinction. No, I’m not suggesting user assistance will become obsolete, but I’d like to discuss how the surrounding changes in this highly dynamic sphere of software development impact our role as technical communicators. According to research on the future of professions by Oxford, about half of the currently available professions will become extinct in less than 20 years. The probability for technical writers is estimated as high as 89%.(2) I would argue that the profession would not go extinct, but its deliverables and the processes with which they are produced would change significantly. You would possibly agree you don’t want to be a classical technical writer with such prospects!
OK, let’s not get scared, but rather motivated to make sure we continue to adapt and thrive in the ever-changing environment. As a veteran in the field of technical communication, Leah Guren, once said, no matter how smart a technology is, somebody still needs to tell his/her Majesty, the User, how to use it, at least in a secure and effective way.
We all hear about digitalization, big data, the Internet of Things (IoT) and Industry 4.0 these days. The way production and consumption are changing highly impacts our users’ information needs. The predictions are quite impressive. Examples are numerous, but let me give you a few:
By 2019: 75% of workers who use enterprise applications will have access to intelligent personal assistants to augment their skills and expertise.(3)
By 2020: The average person will have more conversations with bots than with their spouse.(4)
By 2030: The largest company on the Internet is going to be an education-based company, with smart bot instructors able to personalize lessons for every individual student.(5)
The things we were doing in past years (and continue to do!) were quite an evolution for the classic world of technical communication – adding more and more embedded information into the product, tightly involving user feedback to enhance UA, producing videos that users appreciate to consume information quickly. However, if we are to expect those predictions to become reality, we must admit that in general, user assistance still has little to no interception with trends such as AI assistants and conversations with bots. There are pioneers who have integrated them more and more (Amazon – Alexa, Apple – Siri, Microsoft – Cortana, Google – Google Now).
So, what do we do?
I’m afraid I cannot give you a recipe but rather a few suggestions to think about.
To follow product development and wait for their implementations to be ready so we can describe them is a thing of the past. A mindset change is required in all roles in the organization, a firm commitment to change processes and relations. Thus, our place and role in the organization will change for good.
Collaborate from the very beginning with product Development, visual designers and user experience experts to design not only what the software program is going to do, but to turn the program into a highly interactive and usable product. Specify when and what to ask from the user, provide to the user, or do for the user.
We must know what users need and where they struggle – observe and test even very early prototypes with your users. After all, it’s not about delivering a huge amount of documentation, but about knowing exactly who needs what and when.
Use this valuable information as input for Development – design together and ensure they reserve enough capacity to implement the agreed-upon design.
Design the assistance aspects through user interactions and define what information at what place and in what time the user should get (and also provide). This includes UI text, choices the user makes in the UI, voice controls, etc.
If you have designated product support colleagues, make sure to keep in close contact with them. They are the first to experience users’ satisfaction or the lack of it. So, get together, help each other, and keep your users satisfied.
If doing all this requires you to free up some time, consider decreasing some of your classic deliverables. There are ways to manage the legal obligations to describe everything the product could potentially do, and focus on providing our users with what they really need.
At the end of the day, what matters is whether we can make the lives of our users easier in this ever-changing environment. Let’s go ahead and do it. It will pay off.
 Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User_assistance
 Academic paper: Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, “The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation” PDF: http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/academic/The_Future_of_Employment.pdf
 IDC Research, Inc., IDC FutureScape: Worldwide Big Data, Business Analytics, and Cognitive Software 2017 Predictions
 Gartner, Top Strategic Predictions for 2017 and Beyond: Surviving the Storm Winds of Digital Disruption
 South China Morning Post, “A top futurist predicts the largest internet company of 2030 will be an online school”
About the Author:
Angel Lafchiev is a User Assistance development manager at SAP. His team designs and delivers user assistance for SAP Cloud Platform, the technology platform of choice for cloud applications. He is also on the initiative committee of tekom Bulgaria, the youngest country organization in the tekom family in Europe.