An article printed in the American Translators Association Chronicle back in July 2013 stresses the point that technical manuals should be written in an objective tone, without any trace of the author’s opinion. The article notes that “If properly written, technical texts do not contain any sign of an author or trace of subjectivity…There is no need for them to be entertaining, beautiful, or inspiring…but it is crucial that such texts be written and organized in a way that meets one very specific requirement: efficiency” (ATAnet.org, July 2013).
Fast forward to the present, and efficiency in technical content delivery is more paramount than ever. Industry now stands at the threshold of a fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0 — a term introduced by the High-Tech Strategy 2020 of the German government. As the Internet evolves, the real world and the virtual world are increasingly converging to form an “Internet of things”. Key characteristics of this industrial production are mass customization and the merging of products and services to form hybrid products (German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), 2014).
And yet technical documentation has been slow to keep up with the changing times. In contrast to Industry 4.0 and smart factories — where new technologies are being developed at a rapid pace, and with them, cutting-edge product UX — technical content delivery has remained largely static, rendering it outdated and ineffective. New methods of content composition and distribution are now being developed and implemented to meet market demand and improve efficiency for products and services offered.
Targeted Access in an “Everything as a Service” System
One major change that comes with Industry 4.0 is the transformation from products to services. Also, companies are increasingly providing their products and services on a subscription-based model — take, for example, SaaS (Software as a Service) or aircraft engines (Power-by-the-Hour). These have a special interest in reducing operation times of service technicians, which can be done in part by cutting the time a technician needs to find the appropriate information for a given task (hs-karlsruhe.de, September 2017). To make targeted access to crucial content possible, information must be fashioned in new ways. Its increasing value is resulting in new business models, such as IaaS (Information as a Service), where customers pay to receive additional content or metadata of better quality (timesofcloud.com, 1 January 2018).
Smart Factories, Dumb Documentation
Another recent development is the smart production line. With no assembly line, this manufacturing of the future relies on semi-autonomous components that can communicate with each other using standardized protocols. When a single component is changed or added, the whole production line can automatically adapt itself to the new setup (psi.de, 1 June 2018). While this advanced machine-to-machine communication is already in production, the digital manuals for these components have remained static and inflexible — despite being good candidates for automated content generation because of their straightforward terms and simple language, as well as need for frequent updates.
In recent years the concept of “intelligent information” has cropped up in the technical documentation sector. Offering a solution for the dynamic delivery of content, the term describes modular material that is assorted in self-contained topics and enriched with classifying metadata (tekom.de, 2017). Granular access to information thus becomes possible and facilitates the integration into data-driven processes — like a predictive maintenance event prompting a request for the appropriate service procedure that’s filtered by machine type, affected component and target group (hs-karlsruhe.de, September 2017).
Translation memory, in which content localization and translation solutions are integrated into a content management workflow, can be effective at producing and fine-tuning various copies of an article for any given language. And neural machine translation — a revolution in the ability of computers to understand and to generate natural speech, especially with the application of deep neural networks like Google voice search, WaveNet, and now Google Duplex (ai.googleblog.com, 8 May 2018) — has important implications in the scope of multimedia technical multilingual content delivery. A reliable LSP should be in this instance the provider advising and assisting the company according to the best praxis in the topic, as they have the know-how and expertise to deliver high quality multiformat localization.
Paradigm Shift, Standardized Vocabulary
As the print format of documentation dissipates and is transferred to the digital world, a new form of creating context is called for. iiRDS (intelligent information Request and Delivery Standard) was established in 2016 to create a standardized vocabulary for technical documentation. Relying on metadata, it can establish the context between individual topics, or select an appropriate topic from many options. In practice, the ability to request and deliver intelligent information between individual and independent undertakings means that, for example, a service technician could receive exact instructions for what to do in the event of a malfunction.
Less is More and Legacy Content
Fine-tuned information access relies on distinct data points for good results. With more content components and associated metadata, data quality will become a new challenge for technical writers. It will be important to weed out duplicates from an ever-growing content database, as well as to consolidate metadata into a process of continuous improvements. As quality will be nearly impossible to manually control given the amount of information, software tools for analyzing and reporting data quality should be employed to target similar-content texts and incorrect metadata entries (tekom.de, 2017).
Whereas new technical content will be composed considering metadata and prepared for contextualized delivery, useful legacy content might be overlooked from Industry 4.0-style cases due to its outdated format. However, companies that don’t want to invest the time and manpower to transform existing manuals into intelligent information are limited to new content — and the differences in content quality and access methods can disturb the user experience (ceur-ws.org, September 2016). AI could provide the solution, as approaches based on Machine Learning can already be utilized to augment legacy data for content delivery portals. Paired with human quality control it would thus be possible to semi-automatically process a large number of documents, retrieving and filtering older content in the same way as the new.
Brave New World
Despite the recent innovations, these methods of advanced technical development and delivery have yet to be broadly implemented throughout the planning and publishing stages. In order to meet and better serve the products and services available, the technical content of the future needs to be structured to fit into processes fueled by ever growing amounts of data in smart factories. And AI and deep learning designed to enhance content management must be considered to make information available — for everyone, anywhere, and in any language.
As Industry 4.0 evolves and demands change in the way documentation is written and published, technical writers will face new challenges that go far beyond adopting a neutral tone.
Within this paradigm shift — away from document-based product manuals and towards service-oriented content presentation — technical writers will need to adopt methodical concepts like modularization and metadata models, and have a firm grip of the apps, software and learning programs involved. Indeed, as experts of metadata-driven content creation, they will evolve from writers into “knowledge managers” that work at the crossroads of production and IT to deliver dynamic content beyond the current document context (tcworld.info, March 2018).
If you would like further insight on how to localize your company’s technical content in the most innovative and effective ways, contact us.