Monthly Archives: October 2012
Chapter 4 of Digital Literacy For Technical Communication presented insight on technical communicator’s ability to bridge generational differences. Salvo and Rosinski stated, “Second, technical communicators are well positioned to bridge past and future work involving information design” (105). In essence, because of the rate at which technology and communication mediums are advancing, different generations of information users are accustomed to different communication mediums and designs. Thus, technical communicators must find ways to communicate effectively with all generations—young and old, who make up the demographic of their clientele.
This concept is reinforced by the example of early web page design. Salvo and Rosinski noted, “Many new web designers, as their attention moved from communicating on the page to communicating through the screen, ignored traditional principles of page design in their eagerness to invent new design styles and practices” (106). This comment reminded me of a newspaper design class I took a few years ago. During the first portion of the class, we learned about content layout for traditional print style newspapers. The class then moved to designing layout for online newspapers. Beyond having to learn how to use Dreamweaver, we also had to design content pages for mock newspapers based on actual papers. Our professor was adamant about the need to retain some of the traditional print aspects of the layout such as headline and column font. In addition, the web version was to look fairly similar to the print version so users could recognize key aspects. Essentially, we were designing an electronic version of the print newspaper that traditional readers could, in theory, use and read.
However, within the electronic version of the newspapers, we added links to additional stories, images, and videos that readers could not access from the print version. That is, we retained certain aspects, but added features that allowed access to information only available via the internet. This concept parallels Salvo and Rosinskis’ notion that, “Since then [early web pages] many have rediscovered the value of font design and use of white space, and perhaps more importantly, the benefits of collaborating with users. . .toward the creation of readable and usable documentation,” (106). Indeed, while information design is certainly changing, communicators need to consider all possible users of information, and utilize the best methods to reach these users effectively. In terms of newspaper design, fundamental design principles are generally retained for identification purposes, (the newspaper looks the same in print as it does online) and so readers can quickly locate areas of interest.
As virtual space becomes more and more the standard for communication, technical communicators will need to retain certain aspects of tradition document design to reach all user groups. However, technical communicators will also need to develop new design layouts (such as incorporating links etc as in the case of online newspapers) to fully take advantage of the capabilities of virtual spaces. As I consider how the technology of my generation enables new spaces and practices for communication, I can’t help but wonder how things will change as future generations continue to advance information technology. At what point will my generation be the generation of old technology?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned since starting my career as a technical communicator, it’s that content (information) is useless when the audience can’t find it. Moreover, it’s not much better than useless when the audience doesn’t know how to use or navigate it. I think Michael Salvo and Paula Rosinski’s chapter (Information Design) in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication covers some incredibly valid points about the potential for technical communicators’ contribution to information design.
Technical communicators, myself included, often have a hand in information design from micro-level sentences and paragraphs, to deliverable design and visual appearance, on up to the macro-level organization of information libraries. From my experience, an interesting byproduct of this is that, among technical communicators, skills and experience can vary so greatly. Additionally, the role of technical communicators varies significantly from organization to organization.
At my company I work in the marketing and communications department (which is definitely not always the case for technical communicators). My department consists of marketing writers and technical writers that produce client communications and supporting documentation among other deliverables. Interestingly, there is also an e-commerce department (not part of marketing) that produces the company’s website and its online tools/applications. The writers in my department regularly work with the e-commerce department. Together we aim to create the most impactful products for the audience, but I’m not going to lie, it can be a struggle at times.
By title, e-commerce doesn’t have any “writers” and marketing and communications doesn’t have any “designers,” but we both must contribute those skills—the skills of technical communicators—to perform our jobs successfully. The tricky part is knowing who is responsible for what, who has what expertise, and whose feedback or suggestions add the most value to the information and its usability. What’s clear is that there will always be information design overlap between these two groups. It’s also clear that we can provide the largest benefit to the audience of our deliverables when we successfully leverage the strongest skills of both groups.
From my perspective, a lot of the awkwardness of this arrangement stems from the fact that e-commerce and marketing and communications are two separate departments (and divisions of the company)—basically, office politics. I know there isn’t a quick or easy solution for all groups within a company to work cohesively together, but how can companies encourage an all-encompassing approach to information design? I’m not sure I have an answer.
To me Salvo’s and Rosinski’s article Information Design made the perfect connection to Clark’s article in our journey to explore Emerging Media and the roles that technical communicators will more than likely take on in the near future. The authors state
“Digital literacy cannot be just the ability to use certain technologies. Rather, the term must apply to the thoughtful deployment of technologies that make intervention meaningful and informed by analysis, reflection and historical representations of the field” (Spilka, p. 123-4).
This is just possible if we take Clark’s advice to heart and think and assess critically, keeping in mind the rhetoric of technology.
Content management is in this context one of many examples of work areas technical communicators can evolve their skills and qualities. Hart-Davidson defines professionals in our field as “editors, information architects, usability analysts, interaction designers, project managers, client liaisons, and more” (Spilka p. 134-5). This definition stood out to me because I just started experiencing these different roles in real life work situations. I used to be just a technical writer with some responsibilities concerning managing small projects within our department. Now, I am required to slip into all those above-mentioned roles.
After reading the article Content Management a question that startled me from the beginning of this course finally got answered. Didn’t it seem to you like I asked endless times about the role of marketing in technical communication? I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. In this chapter, the authors mention when talking about the threats technical communicators face lately the “rise of user-generated content, and the broader phenomenon of Web 2.0, something that is perhaps best understood as a significant shift in user behavior from passive consumer to active contributor of content” (Spilka). That’s when it made click in my mind. Now it seems to all come together. The magical term was Web 2.0. I know we read and talked about interaction on social media with our clients all the way along, I just didn’t understand our role in it as professionals.
As of now I would consider us technical communicators as service providers for both parties (e.g. producer/consumer) in assisting them in their communication with each other – back and forth. We don’t just assist the companies anymore in providing materials that deliver information about their products. We now assist both sides in providing information, feedback and assurances or solutions. Not just the companies create content, but also the consumers. The authors summarize this in a better way:
“We must devise ways to listen carefully and move quickly to support the emerging needs of users by documenting new uses, supporting them with new features or services, and scaling-up capacity” (Spilka, p. 141).
Another step stone in my understanding was definitely the article Systems of Engagement. The table Evolution of Content was a great summary on how much has changed in the communication models throughout the last decades. I had to check out the AIIM website and found out that they offer a free webinar about ECM (Enterprise Content Management) on 10/31/2012. Might be interesting to attend.
All these bits and pieces seem to come together to redefine our current and future role as technical communicators. Emerging media changed how society communicates. These changes do already and will continue to influence our profession.
(Post 2 of 2)
Content management is one of those things that we don’t really think about when it’s done well, but can make us very crabby when it’s not. We’ve all experienced the frustration of not being able to find something we need, especially if the need is urgent. Until I began the Tech Comm program here at Stout, I hadn’t thought of it in the least. Now I’ve had two classes in it, and I realize how much effort goes into the initial design of a content management system.
(Forgive me for the following big ol’ reference to quality management-I’m responsible for our quality system at work and we have a big audit coming up in November, so I’m armpit-deep in that subject right now.) One of the basic tenets of a quality management system is continual improvement. In the quality world, this means that once procedures are put into place, they are not set in stone. We should always be looking for a better way to do things, usually through inputs from our own employees and customers. The problem with continual improvement is that people in general don’t like change. The original writers of the procedures can feel dejected or insulted because it can seem others don’t think their work was good enough. Users of the procedures can be annoyed with having to learn how to do the same job a different way. Neither of these reactions is helpful. Everyone must buy in to the idea that they are all members of the company “team,” with a common goal of the business’s success.
I suppose continual improvement is a big part of both information design and content management. It’s not possible to please all of the users all of the time. Changes are bound to be suggested, even if we do all of the research beforehand, with usability studies and such. Not all problems can arise during testing stages, and the corrective actions are one of the forms continual improvement takes. Changes to information design concepts discussed in Spilka’s Chapter 4 are limitless, as there is no one correct answer to design issues. Content managers do their best with usability data they can accumulate and with skills and understanding of concepts of mapping, signposting and general use of space, but they need to stay open to suggestions for bettering their project. A teamwork attitude has to just be part of their personality in order for them to be successful, and pride can only hold the project and the company back from improvement. Their job is never really done – they make it the best it can currently be, but tomorrow a change might come along that makes it better.
(Post 1 of 2 for the week – they are fairly unrelated)
I don’t own a business, but sometimes I like to pretend I own the company I work for because it helps me learn more about running a business and therefore, makes me a better employee and expands my knowledge base. What I’ve learned while pursuing this pseudo-goal is that companies have different considerations than individuals have. Individuals have a lot on the line, but businesses have more on the line, because bad decisions can have a negative impact on the lives of many people. My opinion is that businesses are the “laggards,” as Moore says in his white paper, for good reason.
First of all, if business is good, why rush to take chances on new marketing and technological endeavors? An established company has a lot to protect – its existing customer base, trade information, employees, reputation. If the company is to begin openly and freely giving information to everyone, they are really giving that information to everyone, including the competition. Of course, the extent to which this is a concern is highly dependent upon the industry involved. Think of the companies that pride themselves on being thought of as stable, or the standard in their business – insurance or investment companies, for example. Jumping into new arenas is a big deal. My head is spinning thinking of all of the guidelines that might need to be put in place for employees entrusted with an organization’s virtual identity. Virtual identities aren’t that virtual anymore. The general population is going to form an impression of the company from its website, Facebook page or Twitter feed, and likely assume all of the information presented through those sources is representative of that company. There would need to be at least a second set of eyes on everything in order to mitigate the issuance of misinformation and faux pas. Why not wait and see how the competition goes about it, and analyze the response they receive? I firmly believe in letting someone else make the costly mistakes and learning from others’ experiences for free. This may make the company seem like they are behind, but once they are up and running, I don’t think people care.
For this post, I am mostly considering the “Management Principles and Practices” discussion on pages 59-68 in Spilka.
Now more than ever it is important for everyone to demonstrate his or her value as an employee, regardless of the industry or professional field. Our company has experienced an over 50% cut in our workforce in the past 18 months. Before the layoffs, I was our quality management system director. After the layoffs, I am still responsible for the quality system, but I am also taking care of all contract administration duties and some production management and executive assistant tasks with no raise in pay or any added benefit other than not having to join the unemployment line. I have taken on this added responsibility with a big freaking smile on my face because all four of those titles are considered “overhead” positions, meaning that financially they only cost the company money rather than make it money. People in these kinds of positions are easy targets for the chopping block, and being able to afford to hire individuals for these positions can be seen as a luxury when executive management is getting desperate to cut costs and ultimately save their business. However, just because the position is considered purely an overhead cost doesn’t mean the individual doing the job is doomed to provide no added value to the organization.
One recurring question in the Technical Communication bachelor’s degree program here at Stout was, “What is technical communication?” There is no single correct answer. The ambiguity of our profession really puts us at an advantage if we know how to present our answer when asked what exactly it is that we do. While simply going to work and doing one’s assigned tasks is widely accepted as a sufficient work ethic, it does not allow someone in an overhead position to add value to him- or herself as an employee. So how do we add value to ourselves? A value-added employee is always thinking of ways to do things smarter, more efficiently, more effectively. We need to always be on the lookout for areas in which we can apply our skills, even if it is outside of our comfort zone. If attending college has taught me anything it’s that I, and everyone else, is capable of much more than we assume ourselves to be. Our chosen field is something that can be applied in any industry, and it is difficult to think of a document we can’t generate from scratch or improve if we understand the intent and the “big picture” of the company and its goals. The more we learn about our employer as a whole, the better we can do our job and the more work we can find for ourselves to do within the company.
The only person that can make an employee valuable is the employee him- or herself. It is not always about learning the most up-to-date technology, but it is always about demonstrating a concern for the company and its needs and acting upon them. With a little extra effort, technical communicators have unlimited opportunities to do so.