The Nuances of Information Design

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.

Posted on October 28, 2012, in Workplace. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. “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.”

    I have had similar experinces. As an intern some years ago at a historical society, I was a very in-expereinced professional/technical writer. However, I was also the only person titled as “writer” for this non-profit, which consisted of only 6 -7 full-time employees, and an executive director/board of directors. Thus, despite my lack of expereince, the expectations were high, and I found people above me on the hierarchy seeking my advice on all sorts of written documents–grant propopsals etc. mostly for sentence level editing.

    Although I was the only person titled as a writer, I quickly found out that other individuals, with more experience than myself, were much better at looking at the big picture–determining how my documents would impact the historical society as a whole. Thus, these individuals guided the focus of my writing.

    I learned a lot from the people around me, even though they were not necessarily writers. I am sure that the expectations of a writer at this organization varied greatly from the expectations of a writer at a large company. However, I also think that in either case, it is important for technical writers to learn from each other’s expereinces.

    • You’re completely right. There’s a big difference between being “the” writer in an organization and being “a” writer (one of many). In the case of being the only writer in a small organization, you probably gain a lot of broad experience, which can be really valuable professionally. Working on a team of writers has benefits as well. For me, working with more experienced writers when I first entered the workforce taught me a lot. In either case, continually developing and learning from colleagues is essential.

      • It’s great that you work with a team. This is early on, but I wonder if you can consider interviewing them for a field project that asks your question, “how can companies encourage an all-encompassing approach to information design?” Just thinking ahead…

  2. That is the million dollar question. What the heck does it mean to be a technical communicator anymore? It is a theme that has popped up over and over again in this class and others I have taken in this program and I even see it where I work.

    It was easy when we just wrote books and sent them to customers, but when the information moved online, so did everyone else’s information and they all started looking alike. Training is like documentation is like a support knowledgebase is like marketing material. And, customers don’t care about our petty internal distinctions, they just want the information and they want it as easy as possible.

    I went to a conference a couple years ago and IBM presented something they called TIE: Total Information Experience. They have a VP that is in charge of the whole company’s information strategy. They ensure that information is presented in a consistent style and that it meets a set quality standard. They look at it from the customer perspective and use that to drive the information providers within the company.

    I think that it is natural that companies will start consolidating their information groups into a single entity and tech comms will become a profession that includes all forms of interaction with the audience.

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