Task-based communication: Should we change the online infrastructure?

Where do we come off knowing how a user will access the web? With Google, I can find something that’s deep within a site, and avoid all the crumbs to get to the page I wanted. In Spilka’s book, Ann Blakeslee makes the good point that technical communicators need to shift from “developing documentation based on what writers think their readers need,” to how they “will actually use the information to complete a task” (p. 216). Luckily, we expect repetition in both communication and online. So we can have the same information on more than one page on a website to make sure someone sees it, even if they skipped the two pages leading up to the page they sought.

That is the science. The art is how much to say and what to omit so as to keep the added value of visiting the site (so it’s not just ten pages of the same information over and over again). But, I think that’s a secondary concern. The first concern is to have a task-based infrastructure so that the audience can find what they’re looking for, and not have to sift through paragraphs of information. About the ‘how much to add where’ question, I think it’s a constant challenge to keep tweaking. From my personal experience, I’d rather have a straightforward answer to my query, and then I can dive into the hyperlink tunnel to find more answers if I so wish. That way I do get to know what the website has to offer, just not in a linear manner.

So should we change to a task-based communication? Yes. If you think not, I’d love to hear why; I am open to changing my mind on this if I hear a compelling reason.

Posted on November 2, 2014, in Digital, Teaching and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. It’s interesting that you say, “we expect repetition in both communication and online.” I’d probably use the term “consistency” instead of “repetition,” but you’re right. Not sure if you are in ENGL 740/Visual Rhetoric this term, but I believe students read Gunther Kress who has coined the term “reading paths” since web designers can never be sure if someone who clicks on a link will ever return to the original web page. For that reason, everyone’s “reading path” is different See http://www.knowledgepresentation.org/BuildingTheFuture/Kress2/Kress2.html, specifically Figure 4.

  2. Scottc,

    Your first paragraph echoes some points made by a group of technical writers that I know. Specifically shifting information to satisfy how a user completes a task. I talk with them about the authors and readings we have and there is usually a mixed review. However, they always tell me that the theory behind the how and why is great to know, but in the real world, usability and accuracy of information are the only two must-haves. Everything else falls into varying degrees of nice-to-haves.

    I agree with you on the straight forward answer you desire. I would much rather have a clear answer and the choice to pursue my query rather than a choose your own adventure via hyperlinks.

  3. Carolyn,

    I agree that a tasked-based information system drives to quicker results. My only addendum would be that the system must incorporate the rhetorical design that allows easy user interactions. Specifically, the design layout is a crucial part of a task-based system. Done well, it eliminates the need to search for necessary information. Designed poorly, it forces users to add two or three clicks to what should be a simple search. Task and design, I feel, go hand in hand in digital communication.

  4. This article explains that task-based documentation is not better or worse than documenting product functionality but that it all depends on the needs of the audience.


  5. natashajmceachin

    Task based communication is more straightforward and functional. I think there’s a time and place for everything, and in a training environment, task based communication would work best.

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