Technical Communication is a-Changin

In the Introduction of Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, she poses three questions about how the field of technical communication is responding to and evolving with digital technology that the anthology sets out to answer. She sheds some light on what being a technical communicator has meant in the past, what it means today, and what it might mean in the future.

Spilka argues that traditionally technical communicators have acted more as individual contributors than as contributing members to a larger team effort but that technology has transformed the field into one which requires us to take on new and broader roles and responsibilities and work more definitively in the context of a team.

I experience this daily in the workplace, although until reading this chapter I had no idea whether this was typical. My main responsibility is to write user documentation for my company’s web based software applications, but I also perform the roles of user advocate, user experience and application design consultant, customer support representative, and editor for anything that the outside world might see. I work directly with the development team, and I contribute in ways that definitely go beyond technical writing.

One of Spilka’s main themes is that we as technical communicators need to be willing to evolve with our field as new technology emerges if we want to stay relevant. I tend to agree with her, but I have encountered somewhat the opposite problem; the users of my company’s software are mostly of an older demographic and seem somewhat resistant to receiving technical communication digitally. I would like to provide our users with interactive web documentation and instructional videos, but they seem to prefer traditional printed user manuals.

Currently, I am using Doc-to-Help, a documentation publishing software that allows the writer to author in Microsoft Word and then apply styles to create web based documentation and print documentation. I think that interactive web based documentation provides an excellent opportunity to serve the users with relevant information in a clear and easily navigable way, but I am struggling with the fact that although I may not need to evolve much to arrive where technical communication is today, many of my users are not there yet. I need to find a way to embrace the emerging technology and changes in the technical communication field while still catering to my user-base and serving them in a way that they find accessible.

In Erik Qualman’s chapter of Socialnomics “Word of Mouth goes World of Mouth,” he provides many examples of how social media and other technology is changing our daily routines from how we amuse ourselves while waiting in line at the supermarket to where we look for world news and updates on our friends’ whereabouts and activities.

I have heard many people echo the “who cares what I am doing?” sentiment about social media, but often in the same conversations, these people express the desire for information about other people that they could easily obtain via social media. I am connected to my phone and computer constantly, and I am on board with Qualman’s arguments about why social media is useful and how it helps us to fulfill the need to communicate with others and keep apprised of their updates; however, I wouldn’t necessarily agree that social media makes me more productive. I think there are likely times when social media saves me time, but I also think there are many more times when I just fritter away valuable time looking through pictures posted by people I really don’t care about simply because they popped up in my newsfeed.

I found Qualman’s JetBlue Twitter example to be a perfect illustration of a situation in which social media is more effective than traditional means of communication. Qualman and his wife were stranded in the Austin, Texas airport when their flight (and all flights for four days) were cancelled due to extreme weather. They needed to get to Boston as soon as possible and tweeted about their situation asking for help from JetBlue. Although JetBlue’s social media customer service was overwhelmed that day, another traveller was able to respond to Qualman and his wife and help them to develop an immediate and efficient course of action that got them a flight home home rather than a frustrating cycle of phone calls that may or may not have have gotten them home. This, I think, is social media at its best.

Posted on September 29, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I think your assessment that social media is perhaps more useful/helpful than it is “productive” is pretty accurate when it comes to 90% of the population. I think those who actually manage social media for a company would categorize it as productive and be in that 10% minority (like the social media manager who responded to my Facebook complaint about my internet/cable company).

    I think the rest of us are still in a transition stage and haven’t reached that “productive usage” level yet. I am striving to get there in small bits each day. I am making a concerted effort to start monitoring my clients’ social networking habits so that I can connect with them on this level. Unfortunately, many of them belong to that older demographic that you mentioned, so I only have a few that this relates to. Maybe it’s a good thing, though. It gives ME time to get up-to-speed!

  2. Thanks for sharing your ideas. Great post! I agree with you — I don’t think actually participating in social media makes someone more productive, but I suppose that social media can make a person more productive in another aspect of his/her life. For example, I use Pinterest regularly. I have learned many household tips and tricks that have made my housecleaning routine much more manageable. Although I spent 10 minutes scrolling through Pinterest posts on that particular day, I have made up for those 10 minutes and more by shaving several minutes off of my housecleaning routine each week.

  3. In my last position as a technical writer, I also wrote user documentation and filled the role of a customer advocate. I worked on an Agile team and as part of the sprint the developers would code, then quality control team would test and I would write the documents. I worked close with the team when writing to point out things that didn’t make sense or would be complicated for a user to follow. I think the days of being just a “technical writer” are done. There’s so much more potential that technical writers have to a company and it’s nice to see it utilized.

    • I agree that it’s nice to have our potential and other talents utilized. It seems like many of our readings refer to the broadening of our responsibilities as a negative, but I actually really enjoy having more than just the role of technical writer.

  4. Excellent points and I agree that social media is useful. Others have already noted it, but some of the most positive customer service experiences I’ve had were via Twitter. @askamex and @nikefuel in particular.

    One of my pet peeves is people asking me where I live these days when my current city on both FB and Twitter is clearly listed. This even extends to undergrads asking me where my office is when it’s clearly in my signature…sigh. I think the midterm reading of Alone Together will highlight the negative side of all of this info and the speed with which we gloss over what is right in front of us 🙂

    I hope you can elaborate on your workplace more in future papers because every time I teach this course there’s such a range of experiences and company preferences [print vs digital, social media vs intranet, etc.]

  5. evelynmartens13

    Thanks for the word-to-doc info: I got the 30 day free trial and am going to play with it a bit just to see what it’s about. I haven’t done any work like that, so I look forward to seeing what some of my classmated (like you) are doing in technical communication.

    I find it interesting that a lot of people don’t want to use interactive help or videos, etc. because it seems like that would be more helpful to people, especially people who are somewhat resistant. I know I opt for that kind of help whenever I can.

  6. I think you make a great point that often people want to be more connected to people,while simultaneously eschewing the technology that would help them fulfill that desire. I think that aspect of social media really is productive (while being simultaneously a drain on other people’s time as they read through things that they don’t really care about knowing just to fill time). I think that we see this resistance, as you pointed out, in people who may be older or just less fond of the change that is inherent to our technological culture these days.

    It is no different than having a hard time adapting to digital documentation. It is just a new way of having to do things that you have always done a certain way. If ou aren’t willing to evolve and change along with the technology, you won’t be able to use it to its full potential. I think it is cool that you are pressing forward and working to help your customers be able to engage with newer technology.

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