Monthly Archives: October 2015
After watching the Debate about technology and jobs between Andrew Keen and Jonathan Zittrain, there were a number of topics that peeked my curiosity in this 60 minute video. One, in particular, was this idea around how technology is taking over a number of different jobs within our society. One thing Zittrain came across in his own research was the idea of: if a robot could do something a human could do, than ultimately it was beneath a human’s capacity to do that work.
But is it? One of the things Zittrain noted was that if technology does impact a person’s role, it is also important that there is meaningful work for people. But what if this is meaningful work for some?
I have an uncle who has down syndrome (DS), which is a type of physical and mental impairment. Although the developmental delays vary significantly between individuals with DS, it can hinder their capacity of “contributing” to society. My uncle, for example, has the development that an 8-year-old would have. Nonetheless he is able to work. I would say, however, that type of work while meaningful to him could potentially at any point be performed by technology.
So what happen to the dissemination of unskilled labor then? If we take that away and replace unskilled labor with technology, do we take jobs away from individuals who are elderly or have mental disabilities? In their article on Technology, Society and Mental Illness, Harvey and Keefe found that technology does in fact have an impact on populations that include the elderly, those with mental illnesses and disabilities.
But, can individuals with mental illness (or even the elderly) strive in this “human+machine” culture that Longo refers to (in Digital Literacy) – against the claims made by Harvey and Keefe? One of the most fascinating things about my uncle is his own ability to use and adapt to technology. He can play Wii games and find his way through levels upon levels. Does he struggle with some things? Sure – but if he were living in this digital culture would his online counter parts know he was mentally disabled?
In fact, in her article titled, What effect has the internet had on disability, Aleks Krotoski argues that physical impairments become non-existent in the virtual world. Without having the stigma assigned to them, those with disabilities have the opportunity to flourish online.
This idea aligns well with the information the Longo provided in her chapter on Human+Machine and the importance of investigating and understanding how this human and machine culture works and how it is not equal to the “human+human culture”. In a human to human culture, as Krotoski found, those with mental or physical impairments are chastised, but in an online virtual environment – when it comes down to humans plus machines – those individuals have the opportunity to participate in society without human barriers.
How do you feel the Human+Machine culture might impact the elderly or mentally disabled populations? As technical communicators, how do we account for communication to these audiences if they were in fact online participants?
In this week’s reading of Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart, we learned about the importance of collaboration and the attentive nurturing of one’s social network (online and offline). As I read the assigned chapters I was surprised by how Rheingold’s advice for managing our online communities almost perfectly mirrored my work week meditation on successful participation on committees.
This past week I excitedly attended my first meeting as a member on a committee. I can see you rolling your eyes. Keep in mind that I am an enthusiastic people-person with five years professional experience under my belt – which is enough for me to feel like I can meaningfully contribute, and not so much that I’m jaded about committee work. Also, graphic designers don’t often get to weigh in on college-wide policy. I sat at the long U-shaped grouping of desks admiring my coworkers’ professionalism, and keyed up to be able to represent the marketing point of view. I did get to add some good insight to the conversation, but I also contributed at least once when I didn’t necessarily need to, resulting in me feeling like I added more confusion than productive information. Over the course of the week I spent some time thinking about committee participation, college communication in general and how an individual can best use her experience, connections and insight to contribute meaningfully to the conversation. As it turns out, some of my conclusions were almost exactly the same as strategies that Rheingold shared in his discussion of etiquette while online networking:
Pay attention before you join in. (p. 163)
Rheingold’s first tip urges folks to remain a wallflower for the first couple days while checking out a new community. The culture, expectations and general vibe of a community might not be apparent at first look. It makes sense for the savvy web-citizen to take some time to assess the true nature of a community. If it is a bad fit for whatever reason, then everyone is better off – the individual and the community – not to force the relationship. Additionally, watching and waiting helps the prospective member understand what she is can uniquely contribute to the community.
In a committee situation, it’s less of the question of whether to join but what to contribute. Hopefully any new committee member was selected to provide a very specific skill or knowledge. My challenge is that in my eagerness to contribute I am tempted to join-in as soon as I think of anything to add. Instead, I should pause and absorb what is being discussed without the pressure to pipe up at the first opportunity. Just like in online communities, it’s important to understand the context of the issue being discussed, the tone of the conversation and the roles of the other committee members before joining in.
Assume goodwill. (p. 164)
This is crucial in any situation where text is the primary medium of communication. Any time I receive a potentially snarky email from a coworker I step back and remind myself how easy it is to misinterpret the tone of email without the aids of body language and a person’s audible tone of voice. If I still can’t get out of my head that the email is hostile, my next step is to call or visit the coworker in person to discuss. If there is a problem, usually a quick conversation human-to-human eases the tension. Most of the time, rather than malice having been the cause of the nasty-gram, it’s confusion or ignorance of processes, both of which are situations that I should be jumping to remedy.
Jump in where you add value. (p. 164)
I was talking with someone outside of work who I know has been on many committees, and I mentioned how all of my colleagues in the meeting were so well spoken! I couldn’t have presented those facts in such a natural way. I was nervous that when it comes time for me to step up to the plate I will embarass myself. The woman I was chatting with pointed out that my coworkers’ eloquence most likely came from intimate knowledge of the subject they were speaking about. When it comes time for me to share my expertise, I will find myself able to be speak with authority.
In the end, this all relates back to attention management. Overexcited hastiness can be just as harmful as detachment and disinterest. Step back, breathe and take it all in before making a move. Assume that coworkers mean well despite tersely worded emails. Calmly “ask friendly questions” (p. 164) until the matter is explained and resolved. Every person on a committee or employed in a company is there because of a specific skill or point of view. Keeping that unique attribute in mind can help inform when that insight is needed.
I’m sure looking back on this post I will be tickled by my enthusiasm for committee meetings, but I truly am looking forward to the next session, especially now that I have these strategies in mind.
In “The Long Tail,” Chris Anderson argues that, online, we have more access to and more demand for more niche, less mainstream “micromarkets” of media such as movies, books and music than we ever did in the physical world. In other words, demand is shifting from the head of the distribution to its tail (image to the right). Businesses can actually make money selling these types of relatively unpopular media. Today, you don’t need a megablockbuster to make money, but you still need to make a big impact to capture enough of the market share.
Film streaming services like Amazon or Netflix offer viewers both mainstream content and “off-the-grid” documentaries and vintage movies in large numbers. I, for one, never watched TV until Netflix came along.
I was bored with the silly, inane offerings on the major TV networks, deciding instead to rent movies from Redbox or other similar service. But once I was turned on to Netflix and I had access to so many great, offbeat movies and TV shows, I was hooked. Mini-series like “Top of the Lake” and “The Killing” became my go-tos. I could always find something interesting to watch, even if it was just endless “Law and Order Special Victims Unit” shows. Paired with Amazon, you have a seemingly endless list of options, because what one doesn’t have, the other one does. For example, the other night I was looking for the original 1974 “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (image to the right). It was nowhere to be found on Netflix, but there it was on Amazon, and minutes later, I was watching it. That film had a cult following in the 1970s, when it first came out, but I doubt it’s one of their most downloaded movies now; still, like Anderson stated, if just one person watches it every so often, it can be profitable for Amazon to keep it among its ranks. Likewise, I recently watched the film “Helvetica,” about a single font, for a class assignment; no doubt it was a niche documentary, but there it was on Amazon.
The other advantage Netflix has over the main TV networks is that you can watch whatever you want, whenever you want. Of course, you can do that to a certain extent with DVD, but services like Netflix and Amazon give you instant viewing at any time of day or night. So when I sit down at night after the kids have gone to bed, I can watch my detective shows that wouldn’t be appropriate for them.
The content on Netflix and Amazon is much easier to find than any content on TV. I have cable (the only reason I have it is so the kids can watch their kids shows), and I hate scrolling through the channels looking for something in particular. Most of what’s available is really junk viewing, and you have look and look to find what you might want. On Netflix and Amazon, a search function allows you to type in exactly what you want and, voila!, there it is. I’ve always complained about too many bad choices on cable, but perhaps its just the way the material is uncurated and disorganized.
Distribution graphic source: Ilya Grigorik
“Promote the notion that more info literacy is a practical answer to the growing info pollution.” (Rheingold, Net Smart, p.89)
“Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.”
“…Markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organize. Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally.”
(Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger, The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual, Thesis 3 and 10)
Last year I had an experience as a patient that changed the way that I thought about communication, specifically between experts (the doctors) and the increasingly informed public (the patients).
I had recently been through screening that revealed something worrisome. Since my healthcare provider is laudably transparent, I had access to the test results describing the discovery weeks before I had the chance to meet with a doctor and discuss. This, of course, gave me quite a lot of time to do my own research.
When it comes to researching health and medical issues on my own, I know that the internet is filled with misinformation, and that the doctors are the experts. I don’t panic, self-diagnose or jump to conclusions, but I do like to be as informed as possible when I meet with a doctor so that I can participate in conversation and ask relevant questions. I turn on my internet crap-filters and come walk into the doctor’s office prepared.
The day of my first informational appointment, the doctor swept into the room and introduced herself and her accolades. Then she described her observations from my test results, many of which matched nicely with my own research. However, the way she explained my situation and the tone of her voice made me feel like she was talking to a child. When I asked questions she quickly swept them aside and assured me that there was nothing to worry about. At this point I surprised myself and the doctor by starting to cry. The doctor was shocked, as she had just told me that everything manageable. It wasn’t the content of her presentation to me that caused my reaction. It was her tone of voice, and her dismissal of my worry that deeply upset me. She pointed me to a tissue box and made her exit. I changed doctors.
I was nervous about my second appointment. I knew that I was working with someone new, but my last experience was so upsetting. The new doctor came into the room, introduced herself and then knocked my socks off by her next statement. She said, “I’ve looked at your charts and I’ve formed my opinions, but first I would like you to tell me what you already know so that I can make sure we’re on the same page.” I felt like she was inviting me into a conversation, that she valued me. She didn’t diminish my perception of her expertise by asking me what I already knew. Instead she gave me credit and brought us both to a place where we could productively move forward.
The relationship between experts and amateurs, and the “company” and the “market” has shifted since the common people have had more access to information and better connection to each other. The authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto brought forward 95 theses that explored the shifting balance of power between corporations and the consumers who they market to, declaring that the people want to be treated like humans. Companies need only to look within to find employees that share a voice with the public that they are trying to reach. The consumer is getting so savvy that they can identify when they are being pandered to in a way that is insincere. “Companies need to come down from their Ivory Towers and talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships.” (The Cluetrain Manifesto, thesis number 25.)
On the other side of the coin, the people have a responsibility to become savvy consumers of information. We have access to more information than ever before, but it also runs the gambit in terms of quality and truthfulness. In the chapter on “crap detection” in his book Net Smart, Howard Rheingold champions many techniques that consumers can use to ensure that the fruit of their online research is as reputable as possible. Among them are methods like researching the credibility of the author (p. 78), triangulating information by checking three reliable sources (p. 79), using fact checking tools (p. 90) and finding resources that experts endorse as reliable (p. 91).
When specifically discussing the phenomenon of patients doing their own research before speaking with a doctor, Rheingold is cheered that at least one respected medical source “has publicly advised doctors to teach their parents the kind of crap detection that licensed practitioners learn to do early in their medical careers.” (p. 91). If doctors can help their patients to be savvy consumers of available information they empower people to make better healthcare decisions.
In my case, it mattered to me to have a doctor who acknowledged that I was coming into the conversation having done my research. My desire to be prepared with a basic understanding as well as with questions doesn’t undermine my respect for the expert opinion. The first doctor had made me feel like she lecturing me, rather than bringing me into a conversation. The second doctor wanted to connect with me so that we could move forward together.
This is a lesson that I can bring into my work with end-consumers as well as with colleagues that are coming from different realms of expertise. Defaulting to lecturing only alienates the listener. Perhaps asking instead, “What do you already know?” is a better way to enter a productive dialogue.
BONUS: “Crap detection” was just one of many useful subjects discussed by Howard Rheingold in his book Net Smart. After reading the first chapter I actually bought my own copy of the book so that I could highlight more liberally and keep his advice at hand after the end of the course. Chapter 3 covers the importance of being proactive with your online presence. Rheingold discusses keeping up with Twitter and how he tries his best to be responsive to every post involving him (here he gives his twitter handle). I just had to put this to the test. Three years after publishing this book, would he live up to his claim?
It took him six minutes to respond to me personally. Needless to say, I am very impressed.
Does this qualify for extra credit?
While reading the first few chapters of Rheingold’s Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, the section in chapter one titled “(Using) the Internet Makes Us Stupid (or Not)” really related to me. I constantly hear my friends say things like “autocorrect is making us stupid”, and “We’d be nothing without Google”, but I’ve always thought the complete opposite.
On page 52, Rheingold introduced and explained Nicholas Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” He went on to say:
“A search engine often draws our attention to a particular snippet of text, a few words or sentences that have strong relevance to whatever we’re searching for at the moment, while providing little incentive for taking in the work as a whole.”
I don’t understand how Carr has skewed this situation, but I feel the exact opposite. People Google information they do not know, or else they wouldn’t need to Google it. The “few words or sentences” that are generated from their searches are specifically what they needed to know. Regardless of whether or not they read the entire document, they have already learned something that they will not forget.
Carr feels, “We are substituting the web for personal memory, and emptying our minds”. However, I do not forget the information I look up on Google, ever. He’s thinking along the lines of easy come easy go, but that’s really not the case in this situation. In terms of neuroplasticity, I feel we’re actually training ourselves to absorb more information than ever before in the history of human existence.
I can go through more information online in a year than my grandmother has in her entire lifetime. I have the world’s knowledge at my fingertips, at my disposal whenever I feel like conjuring it. Our generation are masters of information, we’re experts at searching and locating exactly what we want to know in a matter of seconds.
Carr says, “The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it”, and we engage in, “nonlinear, scattered, perpetual scanning at the expense of depth and concentration”. I think my skipping and skimming habits are more like an ability to speed-read and pinpoint information I’m actually looking for than an Internet based attention deficit disorder. Web based authors also format their documents for this purpose, making information easier to find in less time.
In situations where readers need more elaborate explanations of the subject of interest, references to “traditional” texts are always linked to the content. In just a simple click, we jump from the “few words or sentences” to a printable PDF version of a book, or a link to buy a hard copy on Amazon.
It’s law in the United States for every child to attend school, or else their parents are held responsible. According to the National Center of Educational Statistics, American illiteracy rates have been around 14% for the past 10 years, I highly doubt Google has been as influential as immigration, poverty, or drug usage. Most Americans are capable of reading, and will read in the traditional sense when the occasion calls for it. It’s simply a matter of optimizing time, effort, and using discretion.
As Rheingold said on page 52, “A search query, like a Wikipedia page, is often a bad place to end your inquiry, but an excellent place to start”. In most cases readers jump through multiple pages of information, and have the option of a robust explanation of what they are looking for through multiple resources. Google and sites like Wikipedia put them on track to find these resources, and long form text is always an option.
Tools like Google, Wikipedia and even autocorrect give us instant answers and correction that we wouldn’t have without it. Is it better to not have access to information outside of a 2000 page book, or to instantly get what you’re looking for with the option of exploring additional resources?
In Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, Howard Rheingold gives us straightforward advice on how to pay attention to our attention while online and how to subvert the almost-paralyzing fears that haunt us when we are disconnected from our channels of constant communication.
I’ll start with how to pay attention. Both at home and at work, I have two monitors open at all times. It’s critical that I have two screens because I need to constantly compare and cut and paste from documents. But this also allows me to have more windows open and on view at one time. Last summer, when I was doing some freelance work for a company that required lots of early-morning conference calls, I would find my attention drifting from the screen I was supposed to be looking at to my email, shopping sites, bill-paying sites, you name it. I had thought that it was possible to pay attention while having several windows open at once, but it seriously distracted me from the conference call in front of me, and I had to stop trying to do that so I could focus 100 percent attention on the project at hand.
Likewise, when we are always checking our email, phone, etc., we can end up on a hamster wheel of simply responding to emails and putting out fires rather than thinking strategically or making long-term plans. We need time, space and quiet for this kind of thinking, as Rheingold posits in his book.
I have found that the Pomodoro Method that he describes works quite well for when I sit at my desk for long periods, especially when writing and editing long documents. I allow myself to work on something with total concentration for 30 minutes, then I reward myself with checking my email and phone and perhaps Googling something for 5 or 10 minutes. That is certainly less distracting than refreshing my email every few minutes, and it cuts down on my fear of missing some critical email that requires an immediate response and action.
In an office, distractions and disruptions are legion. I work in a cubicle, so I don’t have much of a choice if a coworker drops by with a question or request; I have to stop what I’m doing and respond to that person. I was alarmed to read in Net Smart that it takes up to 30 minutes to recover from such drop-ins, because if the visit was about a request, you start thinking about what you need to do about it while you continue what you had been working on.
I thought it was particularly striking when Rheingold talked about the woman who realized that she was holding her breath every time she opened and read her email. I wondered why we are so afraid of both getting email and not getting email. I think it’s, in both cases, that we fear we’re missing something; in the case of getting email, someone wants something of us–and we better get it to them sooner rather than later. What if we had opened that email a couple of hours later? In the case of not getting email, we wonder if that absence means that the other person didn’t get out email or just chose not to respond. Or perhaps we’re deliberately being kept out of the loop at work. I think this is due to the fact that email is not face to face, and we just don’t have access to the facial expressions and body language that would give us the context we need in order to not worry.
I find that, if I’m in a series of meetings and away from my desk (ie, away from my cell phone, my work phone, my work email and my personal email), I get distracted and antsy to return to my desk and check and make sure I didn’t miss anything. It’s the same at home; if I leave home, I am truly disconnected from email because I’ve never enabled it on my cell phone, because I don’t want to be tethered to it. The first thing I do when I get home is to check my email.
In other words, as much as I try not to be a slave to technology and constant communication, it takes up way too much space in my brain. I know I’m not alone in this “hyperchecking,” particularly after reading Net Smart. Has anyone found any techniques that have worked to counter this hypervigilance and achieve a healthier relationship with technology?
In early 2008, I signed up for Evernote® and became a premium subscriber. It quickly became my digital brain and I used it daily. In 2012, Evernote acquired Penultimate, a note taking app for iPad that allows you take handwritten notes. In 2014, Evernote launched a new version of Penultimate that led to their having to issue an apology to their users.
But, despite their claims of listening to feedback, many Evernote users suggest otherwise in the app’s forums. I believe this “development in a bubble” has led to the company’s CEO, Phil Libin, having to step down and to the company’s having some serious trouble with public relations if not finances, as reported by BusinessInsider.com: The inside story of how $1 billion Evernote went from Silicon Valley darling to deep trouble.
I’m no business analyst so I’ll skip the charts and graphs. But, I can tell you why I left Evernote last year as a premium subscriber and active user in favor of another app. I believe the following are some of the main reasons Evernote is struggling—all of which have to do with Evernote being un-networked to its user base.
We’re Listening But Not Really
Howard Rheingold, Author of Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, says “The aggregated by-products of digital participation add up to a marketable commodity…” (p. 135). In theory, yes, but only if the company is listening.
In Evernote’s case, I and other users called for certain features or feature tweaks for years in the user forums. What we got were new apps that eventually died (e.g. Hello and Food), features no one seemed to be asking for (e.g. Work Chat), or redesigns that turned long-standing workflows on their heads or made them impossible.
The net effect went something like this over and over again: “We didn’t get to that fix or feature you wanted, but look! We created a food app because Phil, our CEO is a foodie, and, well, food app!”
We Know What’s Best for You
At the front of the online book, the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual list the 95 theses found within it. Number 25 is “Companies need to come down from their Ivory Towers and talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships.”
Evernote boasts over 50 million users worldwide. It’s my feeling this gave them so much confidence in what they were doing, they became dismissive of what users were saying.
Go to the forums—virtually any forum. I’ll bet you won’t have to scroll long before you find an Evernote team member effectively saying “Let them eat cake!” In other words, they indicate they understand the concerns, but they know what’s best. Whether or not a feature request is in the development pipeline or not is not the business of end-users. At least, that’s how many of us felt.
Drink the Kool-Aid or Else!
Power-user bullying of everyday users is rampant on the forums. Evernote is silent. I’ve read dozens of comments from self-identified power-users in reply to average users’ concerns that leave me speechless.
Effectively, these power-users seemingly become defensive on Evernote’s behalf and will shut-off whiney users: “Evernote is great. I use it 1,000 of times a day and have for 50 years. You just don’t know what you’re doing. I’ve given you two work-arounds, a life raft, and a helicopter! If you don’t like the way Evernote is set up or don’t like my work-around. Leave!” They don’t actually say this, but it does effectively represent their intent and tone.
The fascinating thing is that Evernote lets it go on. And, the next thing you know, that power-user bully has published a post on Evernote’s blog. You start to really feel hopeless as an average user.
A Note from the New CEO
A month ago, Evernote’s new CEO wrote to the user base explaining why the company was laying off talent and closing offices globally. He said some important stuff that may represent the bubble is being popped and Evernote will begin focusing on its user network (and hopefully employee network, if you read the Business Insider article):
“I believe that a smaller, more focused team today will set us up for growth and expansion tomorrow. Here are two things that you can expect from us over the next several months: we will launch major foundational product improvements around the core features that you care about most, and we will pull back on initiatives that fail to support our mission.”
He’s saying the company is going to focus on improving its core product THAT USERS CARE ABOUT MOST. I hope that means the same thing users have been telling Evernote all along: “Great product, but we need it do to A, B, and C, and by the way this needs fixed.”
I’m not going back to Evernote. Not yet. Maybe never. But, I’ll watch from afar to see what happens.
“If you’re not part of the future than get out of the way” (Mellencamp, 2001, Peaceful World)
When I started The Cluetrain Manifesto and 95 Theses I wasn’t sure if it was forward thinking or silliness. Granted, I hadn’t gotten to the “meat,” because I almost stopped reading after this enthusiastic bit: “The sky is open to the stars. Clouds roll over us night and day. Oceans rise and fall. Whatever you may have heard, this is our world, our place to be. Whatever you’ve been told, our flags fly free. Our heart goes on forever. People of Earth, remember” (p. 5). Okay. But you can be over-the-top when you’ve written a corporate wake up call the equivalent of the Ten Commandments.
It’s pretty bold to imply the customer is always correct; it’s more so to state that businesses are completely wrong. Yet, that’s exactly what authors, Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger proclaim. Their Cluetrain Manifesto warns corporations to speak our ”human” language, include us in their discussions, realize conversations are online, outside, in-house, and that it’s no longer business as usual. We matter! We want a place at the table, we want to be heard, and we want them to change how they deal with us. “You want us to pay? We want you to pay attention” (78, p. 7). Good stuff.
Going for the corporate jugular, the Manifesto mocks how companies communicate not only with their customers, but also with their own employees. Having just received another company email explaining an administrator-approved, attorney-reviewed, HR-established procedure that strips away more employee soul, I particularly liked 44: “Companies typically install intranets top-down to distribute HR policies and other corporate information that workers are doing their best to ignore” (p. 5). Yep. And let’s not forget command and control. I work in higher education; I get it.
There’s some over-reaching with the truisms. We “get far better information…from one another than vendors” and “There are no secrets” (11-12, p. 6). Not necessarily, or we’d know the secret recipe for Coke and when Apple’s introducing the iOffice (I made that up). And the authors skipped over the fact that plenty of businesses have adapted, and adopted business practices that meet our needs. Many businesses do “talk” to their customer and market honestly. In my observation it’s the larger, often disconnection corporations that “do not speak in the same voice as these new networked conversations” (Locke et al., 2014, p.5). Where I live we have many small stores and franchises, both on the ground and online that engage in marketing strategies with a “human voice.”
Ernest Hemingway stated, “Every man should have a built in automatic crap detector operating inside him” (as cited in Rheingold, 2014, p. 77). In a lesson with his daughter, Rheingold delved into crap detection and the difficulty of knowing what’s credible in the online environment. Following his steps with his daughter was a bit frustrating (I wrote down the links to try), and yes, the Internet is full of companies that either missed the Manifesto, don’t know how to transition their hard-sell marketing techniques, or simply don’t care. Blaring banners, eye bleeding colors, tricky links, and less than truthful claims seem to be regular marketing practices today. (Could it be our culture of increasing acceptance of misinformation in politics that makes it okay?). You want to talk to us? Learn our language. You want to sell to us? Your old tactics won’t work. You want to reach us? We’re on the brave new ‘web of a world’. And when Rheingold’s daughter asks, “How can I tell if anything I find on the web is real “ (Rheingold, 2014, p. 78), that, dear child, is a great question.
My house, could be run by librarians. I have always had a little bit of insanity when it comes to cataloging information and trying to make it easy for others to access. For instance, once upon a time, all of my household manuals were kept in one location. Trial and error made me realize that this didn’t make sense. The kitchen appliances seemed to have a greater need for me to be able to quickly access the manuals. I moved them all to a special location in my kitchen and the rest of the manuals go in my laundry room.
And, if you don’t think that is particular enough, I have a sitemap. In the event that a family member is watching my child, I don’t want them hopelessly frustrated trying to figure out the dust-vac. I have a “map” of every appliance and the room where someone would need it. It then cross-references where the accessories are for that appliance and where the instructions are. Weird. I know.
When I was younger, I actually thought I may need some sort of intervention because of how specific my brain was in categorizing the information that came into my house. I used to file every article that crossed the threshold. That got to be exhausting. I literally had giant binders for topics. It was a bit OCD. I now realize that I don’t need to retain all information I come across as the internet is able to relocate almost all of it. I have to keep myself away from magazines and let the internet (and the document designers) do what they do best, catalog the information for retrieval.
As I read chapter 4, I was all over it. I have been doing most of it for years, even if I didn’t realize it. My binders of information actually take a lot of work to cross-references. While I know that I will only need some information, like when I’m cleaning or in the kitchen, for instance, I know my parents will access it randomly when watching my child. I make sure that they can find the vacuum manual more readily than I would require it. It is the first manual in my household binder.
This is much like the approach for structuring a website. I know my audience. I know what they need and I know where they will get lost trying to find it.
As a professional in the world of technical communication, I often wonder what my role really means for the organization. When people ask me what I do, I often pause and respond with some generic phrase like, “I decipher geek speak for non-technical people”. But, at times I am in the business of marketing our department to the rest of the organization. At other times, I am compiling “How To Instructions” (when I can get away with it). But I often wonder at what point in time does one cross the line between technical communicator, to support help, or even to technical subject matter experts (SMEs). And this idealism off too many cooks in the kitchen seems to ring true from a technical communication standpoint.
I am always asking questions and trying to drive out more information from technical SMEs. In return I am cornered with negative responses and many people not understanding why I’m asking the questions I am asking. Or, my favorite, telling me that no one actually needs to know that (because technical professionals are so good at putting into human terms what they really need to say. But for me this is where Dicks (2010), identifies that technical communication is developing and changing in a number of different ways (p. 58).
I personally believe it is this change, this evolution that may be causing angst for many newer generation technical communicators. Many organizations have to spread out responsibilities and for some organizations; technical communication is a fairly new commodity (especially if they are not delivering some type of technological solution to the consumer world). In the case at my organization, internal technical communication is fairly new and while our primary product is food related, technology is still at the core of our business functions.
I particularly find the following graphic interesting as well when it comes to this concept around both the change that technical communication is unfolding within organizations today and the correlation with “too many cooks in the kitchen”.
This graphic is based on products by LearnMax (2015), a company who specializes in technology training. But for me it is the categories that truly resonate with the different areas of technical communication that I see quite often.
As technical communicators we need to have a baseline knowledge of what we are writing/communicating about. Unfortunately we cannot always trust the SMEs to know what we need and why we need. It’s this type of information that I believe drives technical communication. Dicks (2010) further states, “reshaping [our] status will involve learning technologies and methodologies such as single sourcing and information, content, and knowledge management, and then optimizing information development of multiple formats and media” (pg. 55).
- This statement not only aligns with the knowledge management aspect, but also with regard to the training aspect.
- Optimizing our information for multiple formats hones in on this idea of enterprise mobile and writing for mobile device – not just shrinking our information to fit on mobile devices
- We are also there for the customer – whether it is for an internal customer or an external customer.
Ultimately this all aligns with content development, as shown in the graphic above. It should be our goal to customize our content not only for formats and media – but for our audience. Dicks (2010) calls out the value of our role in the following four categories: “cost reduction, cost avoidance, revenue enhancement, intangible contributions” (p. 61). But I bring us back to my original example in my own situation – of too many cooks in the kitchen and refining the role of technical communication within organizations.
For example, the Information Technology Help Desk was at one point responsible for preparing our department intranet pages. The content, design, and layout was all brutal. In an effort to formalize this channel as a communication tool, I focused heavily on design and updating the pages so they seemed more accessible and inviting to staff. Unfortunately, I would say that this idea / change in ownership of job duties has been a constant struggle. At one point this group never wanted to give anything up, and yet at time if it’s not perfect it is used as an excuse to pass the buck off onto someone else.
So while we can theoretically lay out for management on how technical communication can provide value to the organization, how do we show value to our colleagues who might be more concerned that we are stepping on their toes?
Dicks, S. (2010). Digital Literacy for Technical Communication. In R. Spilka (Ed.), The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work, (pp. 51-81). New York: Taylor & Francis.
When your husband is a biologist you find yourself participating in unusual activities for a graphic designer. A couple weeks ago I found myself providing moral support by tromping around the forest after dark as part of a citizen science activity led by my better half. I had a headlight strapped to my forehead and I was sweeping my gaze across the leaf-litter looking for the blue-green reflections from the eyes of wolf spiders. I’m proud to report that I was a very successful “citizen scientist” as I located quite a few of the little guys. To use the scientific term, I had developed a search image, by becoming hyper-sensitive to the the minute details that differentiated between the shimmering slug slime and the spider-eye glitter (Happy Halloween!). My brain had learned to look for one very specific thing set of traits, and to ignore anything that didn’t match up.
I observed a similar phenomenon when I worked for a tea company a couple years ago. (No spiders. I promise.) For a variety of reasons the company had decided to switch the format of packaging for its retail products from tins to paper boxes. As with the tins that they were replacing, each grouping of of the boxed teas (herbal, green, black, etc.) had a different visual theme to reflect the rich history and craftsmanship behind the individual lines of product. Some of the lines kept graphics that were nearly identical to the labels on the tins that preceded them. Some lines were completely revamped.
When the redesigned boxes finally hit the shelves, tea sales showed mixed results. Some sold quite well, but the line of teas that had the worst turn in sales was one that was completely redesigned. For all of the teas, customers had to look for boxes on the shelves instead of the tins that they were accustomed to. The tea company received calls asking why stores had stopped carrying customers’ favorite products. The products were still on the shelves, but the customers’ established search images were making them blind to the new packaging. This was very early in my career, and though I could be proud of how handsome the graphics had turned out on these boxes, I learned a lesson. Redesigns happen at a price. No matter how satisfying it might be to completely overhaul the aesthetics of a product it might not be worth the blow to customer recognition. Having an established search image can help a scientist or a tea lover quickly find what they are looking for, but it can also blind them to anything that doesn’t match up.
In the field of technical communication, the concept of ambient design is related to the effects of a search image. Salvo and Rosinski explain that, “effective ambient design helps users understand the purpose or content of a [document] with a quick glance.” (p. 120) Users create an entire mental library of meanings tied to visual cues. When looking at the magazine shelf in a store, a reader can quickly deduce the kind of content she would expect from Seventeen Magazine and how it might differ from Vogue. She doesn’t need to read the headlines on the front cover to know this. She makes her conclusions based on the magazine’s use of colors, typefaces, photography, and white space. If her favorite feature is always in the first twelve pages with a blue headline, she might flip directly to that page without critically observing the pages before or after. It would be a mistake for an editor to move that feature to the back of the magazine and use red headline, because the reader is already cued in to the ambient design with a pre-established search image.
These are the powerful forces behind a brand. A company or product establishes a set of cues that get filed away in the mental library of the consumer. Companies will go to great lengths to establish and protect a brand. For example, last year Cadbury lost a legal fight with Nestle after it attempted to trademark a very specific color purple. In the U.S. many people can name the postal service that deploys brown trucks, or remember the cause behind trendy yellow rubber bracelets that were popular years ago. Coca Cola’s brand is so strong that its name can be easily identified when written in a foreign language as long as it’s in the iconic white script on a red background.
As a technical communicators, designers and consumers we can form opinions around the subtle shifts or dramatic reinventions of our favorite brands. What can we learn from the companies who make big changes gracefully, and others that flop? Is there a right way to tweak a brand without alienating your consumers, or is it always a negative experience for the customer whose pre-established visual language is being re-written?
A major theme that resounded through the readings was the need for the organization, understanding and usability of content online. Through the use of creative design, implementation and use, technical communicators can work in conjunction with designers and help find solutions to these problems. Above all, usability and ease are the two most important factors in web design.
The famous phrase “form follows function” was coined by American architect Louis Sullivan in his 1924 book Autobiography of an Idea. There are two ways this phrase can be interpreted:
1). Aesthetics should be secondary to function
2). Beauty results from the purity in form.
Modernist architecture was based around this idea, as ornaments or decorative elements to a building were considered superfluous. In other words, the shape of a building or object should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose. With this purpose, this movement became the guiding force for numerous architectural movements and schools of design.
However, one can ask, does this same principle hold true in a cyber environment?
In the early years of web design, oftentimes there was no rhyme or reason to the designs used by untrained technical communicators. Oftentimes, they would disregard principles of effective page design in an attempt to differentiate document design for print from online. In the wild west of web design, an innovative form took precedent over function. However, as time progressed, these freedoms gave way to a new wave of design fueled by purpose, content and user needs.
Today, we take these things for granted and expect certain standards for orienting ourselves in virtual space. Because there isn’t a one size fits all approach, the way in which designers create these spaces is intriguing.
Should they follow Sullivan’s advice of “form follows function”? Or would some creative flair benefit a site and make it more usable? This poses a challenge for designers because while usability is key, it is discouraged to gravitate towards either extreme.
On one end of the spectrum you have your very basic, bland web design. It presents the users with the usable components without any frills. An example of this is the Craigslist site with its basic blue links on a blank white page. It is clear that function is the most important aspect of this site, and little concern is given to aesthetics.
On the other hand, a site that either has too much going on also renders itself unusable. In the example for Yvette’s Fashion it is clear that the overwhelming amount of information, flashy colors, images and tiny text make it almost impossible to navigate, let alone read.
Gentlemen bear with me, but in a way this analogy of design and usability could be compared to women’s footwear. On end you have your very basic and ubiquitous white tennis shoes. While they may not look fancy, they are comfortable, provide the right amount of support and quickly can accomplish the job of getting the user from one place to the next. They are simple and style plays little role in its usability.
In contrast, there is the glammed up eight-inch stiletto. While they aren’t practical, the over the top nature of them definitely catches your attention. Additionally, while they also will enable the wearer to navigate from one place to the next, it is at a much slower and cumbersome pace. While both forms of footwear are aimed toward different users and server similar functions, the usability differs. In other words, usability is impacted by design.
Likewise, design elements contribute to the ambience of web sites and help prepare the user to understand the context for its use. In Digital Literacy for Technical Communications, Slavo states,“Readers recognize designed elements of the document before interpreting the context”. In other words, visual design carries its message in its physical presentation.
For instance, even a simple change in the web design can make a difference and affect usability. In Louis Lazar’s article, Design is Only as Deep as it is Usable, he examines the homepage for Facebook with a simple omission of color:
While the plain version is still functional, it is less inviting. Additionally, the contrast between the blue and white makes the boxes easier to find and therefore use. Overall, this example proves that design can aid in the function of a web site.
In sum, there isn’t a “one size fits all” approach to the design and organization of web content. Because there is no hard and fast rule, function can’t overlook aesthetics and vice versa. “Eye candy is important, but it isn’t everything, and that for a design to be truly beautiful, it has to be functional, have purpose and contribute in some way to the website’s intuitiveness, usefulness and branding” (Smash Magazine). Rather, a balance of the two is needed as they work hand in hand to produce content that is both intuitive and appropriate for the audience. Through this, both ease and usability can be accomplished and good web design can prevail.
I think that I am getting the hang of this “rhetoric of technology” now since Clark simplified it to “technology and rhetoric are…co-bedded in culture,” and that for technology to be a “real cultural phenomenon,” people have to start bickering over it (Clark, 2010, p. 85). Additionally, it has been drilled into me that all these technology analyzing tools are based on society and culture and its users, which in combination also plays a part in the workplace. I will be discussing my role as a contractor in the workplace with this cultural theory in mind.
According to Clark, who invokes Johnson to confirm that
[T]echnological design and implementation that places users, rather than systems, at the center of our focus, and that we have an ethical and cultural responsibility to learn and argue to collaborative approaches… (Clark, 2010, p. 93).
For my last assignment, we did just that. We had our users in mind – new people who had no training, and who were from another country – when we were told to update our content managing system (CMS) to be more user friendly, go through all documentation to either update or delete them, and to create new documentation if the documentation did not exist. The CMS was cleaned up, updated to have visuals such as icons and graphics, and had proper meta tags added each document to make them easier to find in searches.
While this fury of work was being done, we joked about how we are providing so much helpful documentation that we would all be out of a job. And we were. Once everything had been completed and tested over a month in another country, all of us contractors were given notice that all of our jobs were now going overseas, and that those people overseas would be actual, hired employees. But everyone here had a job to do, even though we knew we were putting ourselves out of a job. Thus, when Hart-Davidson wrote, “[T]he combined threat that many technical communicators have confronted firsthand: outsourcing and work fragmentation,” I could only nod in agreement and wonder what I have gotten myself into, again (2010, p. 141).
To make matters worse, when Hart-Davidson goes on to say that “users providing their own help content…actually present dramatic new roles for technical communicators to play,” I wanted to throw this book because he never explains which new roles that these were going to be (2010, p. 141). I do not want generics, I want real answers. Maybe being a consultant or contractor is a dream job for many, but when you have a family to take care of, bills to pay, and you are the nearly the sole wage earner, hearing that you only get so much time at a job is scary. In my opinion, it is sad that companies seem to only care about the bottom line and their customers, but not their employees. Employees used to be the ones valued, and their worth was rewarded with stock options, PTO, health benefits, etc. No more. The companies’ real value is information, which Hart-Davidson writes is the true “valuable commodity” (2010, p. 128).
Now, at another assignment, which I already know the exact date when to start packing up my stuff, I have tried to get them to be more efficient with their workflow, work instructions, and etc. But just as culture and society have certain conventions, rules, and guidelines, so does this workplace too. I have already been told that once a decision on how the templates were made, no further changes will ever be made. I understand that with global companies, they have to think globally, and when there is a change to the standard, then that change needs to be reflected in every document, which costs money. But working with these old templates creates extra work, as some things are duplicated, and there are fields on there that no longer apply, in my opinion. I believe that these templates could be edited for efficiency, remove confusion for the user, and look more professional, but the “power relationship encoded” in this template has limited what I can do with it (Salvo & Rosinski, 2010, p. 103).
Additionally, there is an issue of storing these documents and templates. It has been repeated throughout this course so far that there is a need for companies to store their information for others to find it. I brought this issue up in two meetings at work, with the reply of being that they know it is a problem, but it is not important enough to deal with. I would have to disagree. Even Salvo and Rosinki remark that “information that cannot be easily retrieved when needed is useless” (2010, p. 103). And if information is a “valuable commodity,” as already referenced above, then there is a problem that needs to be resolved sooner, rather than later (Hart-Davidson, 2010, p. 128).
In the end, while I learned that technology is based in culture and society, there are limits, rules, and guidelines that I have to play by. Some companies may be open for change; for others, they are more ridged due to political concerns. Many contractors understand that have an ethical and cultural responsibility to their client, even if it is to their detriment. While some scholars are hopeful that there will be plenty of jobs for technical communicators, some are not, and this theme continues to be weaved in and out of texts, which makes me hope that when I am on my deathbed, I can look back and know that I made the correct choice. Otherwise, dang it.
Clark, D. (2010). Shaped and Shaping Tools In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 93). New York, NY: Routledge.
Hart-Davidson, W. (2010). Introduction In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 93). New York, NY: Routledge.
Salvo, M.J. & Rosinski, P. (2010). Introduction In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 93). New York, NY: Routledge.
Content management as it applies in Digital Literacy by Rachel Spilka refers to “a set of practices for handling information, including how it is created, stored, retrieved, formatted and styled for delivery” (p. 130). My first thought was of college and university websites – who creates the online image, who maintains it, and how do you know if it’s effective? When your website looks different, are you being original, savvy, an “outside the box” thinker or someone who looks like they don’t know what they’re doing? A standard design helps you find information, “validates” it, and to a certain degree creates “credibility” – an implied added value that brings users to your site. Visit 39 Factors: Website Credibility Checklist (http://conversionxl.com/website-credibility-checklist-factors/), and web design is the first standard. And it needs to be attractive with bells and whistles. University of Melbourne’s (http://www.unimelb.edu.au/) Dr. Brent Coker states, “As aesthetically orientated humans, we’re psychologically hardwired to trust beautiful people, and the same goes for websites. Our offline behavior and inclinations translate to our online existence. As the Internet has become prettier, we are venturing out, and becoming less loyal” (The Melbourne Newsroom: http://newsroom.melbourne.edu/news/n-575).
The annual Webby Awards (http://www.webbyawards.com/winners/2015/) selects the best of the Internet including websites and mobile sites and apps. I took a look at the awards for college and university website design, because I have the chance to redesign my page. Stephenson University was a top winner; take a look – http://www.stevenson.edu. Notice anything different? My eyes went straight to the left navigation – where is it? Stevenson dumped it on their homepage, but click any link on the center block of information and you get one. Whew.
I’m not a technical writer, but I write for work. No one at my college is a technical writer, but everyone with access to the Novus Content Management System (CMS) writes for our website. In Digital Literacy, William Hart-Davidson asks, “what does a writer do when the whole company writes (Spilka, 210, p. 137)? In the case of my school, you get a fragmented, out-sourced variation of styles and priorities. My college’s website design is awful. Don’t get me wrong, I love where I work, our students love us, and we engage with and support our community– but our web appearance really bothers me. Take a look at Hillsborough Community College: http://www.hccfl.edu/
The left navigation isn’t alphabetical or listed in order of importance; certainly, “Dining Services” isn’t as important “Searching for Classes. In the middle we have “Steps to enroll” and “Apply Now;” “Apply Online is also on the left – everything leading to the same information. Part of the problem is the use of a content management system (CMS) – Novus – that longer meets our needs. And until recently we employed one web manager and no other web staff to maintain the college’s web presence. As Hart-Davidson notes, “content management (cm) systems provide resources for enacting the kind of work reflected in Table 5.1, but they do not do the work themselves. Nor do they help those who lack expertise in writing studies learn best practices” (Spilka, 2010, p. 141).
This is an area that interests me and I have a chance to practice what I learn with our Distance Learning website revision. But in an educational organization with so many layers of administration, and committees who make most of the decisions, how does one promote a new content management strategy? Do any of you in higher education employ technical communicators to assist in website design and maintenance? And how do you measure the success of your website?