WIRED Brand Lab and IBM have gathered together an array of technology experts to discuss how the Internet of Things (IoT) is changing the world around us. The series of articles and videos about how buildings integrated with Watson IoT in order to transform static, lifeless structures into artificially intelligent, “smart” beings were fascinating. There were many impressive statistics shared, including:

  • 9 billion devices worldwide are currently connected to the Internet
  • By 2020, 30 billion sensor-enabled objects will be networked
  • Within the next decade, this number could explode from 50 billion to 1 trillion, consisting of 212 billion sensor-enabled objects, 110 million connected cars, and 330 million people (yes, networked people)

Speaking of networked people, the article I found most poignant was the one about the impact of people on the IoT. It stated that by 2020, “smart” buildings, cars, and cities will remarkably improve life for the “connected” person. Imagine getting home from work and your home opens your garage, unlocks your door, lights your way, and appropriately runs the heat or air conditioning. You may even receive dinner recommendations on your mobile device. Pretty nice, right? Or, what if your “smart” bracelet awakens you in the middle of the night because it has sensed irregular heart patterns, and it has already sent this information to your primary care physician and called for medical assistance? Thanks to the IoT, you received the urgent care needed to spare you from a heart attack!

The message in this article: the point of the IoT, and technology in general, is “..to make life and work better, safer, and more enjoyable.”

In general, these are the same marching orders that we technical communicators follow: to help make life and work better, safer, and more enjoyable by providing easy-to-use and understandable content that allows people to properly and safely use products and technology.

So, what does the IoT mean to the future of Technical Communication? Good question! With all of these networked sensors sensing the world (and us!), there’s a whole bunch of end-user information that will need to be created.

I found an interesting poll on TechWhirl that asked the following question: “How is the Internet of Things changing the concepts of content creation and management?” Here are the results:


Source: “Content Providers and the Internet of Things (poll)

The first line item has been a rallying cry since the first product manager demanded the first manual from the first tech writer. The second, third, and last items are things that are, or must, take place in order for technical communicators to provide the best possible information products they can regardless of the product, application, or technology being documented.

The most important statement in the above image is the fourth one, and it should state “Content producers MUST master a larger set of cross-functional skills.” What skills do technical communicators need in order to write for the Internet of Things, or any other emerging technology? Unfortunately for me, I never bothered to read the manual that came with my crystal ball and have since lost it, so I can’t say which set of future skills or tools will best prepare us for this task. However, as a veteran tech writer, I think it’s safe to say the following current tools and methodologies will be in even higher demand in order to write content that can be easily shared and transmitted by the billions of devices talking across the IoT:

  • Content management systems: A database system that stores and simultaneously publishes content into multiple outputs, such as websites, marketing materials, help systems, and, yes, manuals; updates to content can also be made once and applied across all intended outputs.
  • Controlled or Simplified English: English is verbose; English is confusing; there are too many words in English that mean the same thing; controlling or simplifying English by limiting word choice, syntax, and sentence length, and adopting active voice structure all help make English easier to read and translate.
  • Structured authoring: Structured authoring via Structured Framemaker, DITA, or something similar, enforces rules for content to follow, streamlines formatting, and allows writers to focus solely on content development.
  • Topic-based authoring: Writing content in small, standalone chunks, or topics. These topics can then be easily reused when and where needed regardless of the target product (how many ways are there to explain how to print something?).

In addition to interacting with development and engineering teams, tech writers must work with usability and user experience teams, quality assurance and testing teams, marketing departments, language service providers, technical support teams, and so on in order to provide content that meets the needs of the product as well as the customer.

The above tools and methodologies all share a common goal: to make content easy to read, share, and use. This is the type of content that we strive to deliver today, but in the future, the IoT will demand it. The tech writers of today are working hard to adopt as many of these tools and methodologies as possible, but the tech writers of tomorrow must be well-versed in all of these in order to produce the type of content that must be easily shared, understood and consumed by the people at the center of the IoT.

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