Any doc, any place?

With the combination of responsive web design, modern content tools such as Madcap Flare, and the proliferation of mobile internet devices for viewing content, it has become so much easier for technical communicators to design and create documentation that meets the need of their audience when — and where — they users need it.

While the leading-edge examples get the buzz in tech comms circles, I think the majority of user docs are still designed according to concepts and practices from five or ten years ago. That is, they still have at their heart a WinHelp or even paper baseline for the design and content decisions.

Many old-school technical communicators have an “architecture mindset” as Ethan Marcotte describes in his post on A List Apart:

English architect Christopher Wren once quipped that his chosen field “aims for Eternity,” … Unlike the web, which often feels like aiming for next week, architecture is a discipline very much defined by its permanence. … Creative decisions quite literally shape a physical space, defining the way in which people move through its confines for decades or even centuries.

For each separate viewing experience — paper, online help, web, mobile — designers would (and often still do) create a new architecture for delivering the content. But now the tools and support to truly separate the content from its delivery are widely available.

Not all technical communicators want to work this way. It’s different, and possibly scary. As Scriptorium’s Sarah O’Keefe keenly notes:

Technical communication is in the midst of a huge transition from a craft/artisan model to an engineering model.

But I think most professional technical communicators welcome the new technology, and the new opportunities to deliver information in better ways. As responsive design, flexible content tools, and mobile delivery truly hit the mainstream, they will bring a huge, positive change to the way user documentation is created and delivered.