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.