Relying on Heuristics in Digital Communication

I spend nearly every work day reviewing science and engineering reports and memos. Virtually every one of them follow the same structure: introduction, methods, results, and discussion or IMRAD as it is sometimes called. IMRAD is a viable heuristic for what is historically a paper-based, long-form argument. (If it weren’t, it would likely not be so prevalent.)

I’m also asked frequently by the marketing department to review content for online distribution. To help them along and save myself significant substantive editing time, I’ve attempted to provide that department—some of whom are trained technical writers—with heuristics (what I call writing prompts or an outline of sorts) which they can use to author within the various information types they are responsible for. So far, I’ve developed heuristics for blog posts, social media posts, brochures, flyers, and so on.

They’ve come to rely on these heuristics, essentially canonizing them, which was never my intention. I’ve been thinking a lot about why this has happened and its appropriateness. I’m beginning to be cautious about developing heuristics especially for digital communication.

Paper-Based and Digital Communication Are Different

Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski wrote in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication (p. 105) touched on this dilemma:

“One difference between paper-based and electronic communication is that the forms and designs of older analog media have been internalized and naturalized…Use, familiarity, and comfort within these newer information spaces are therefore, to some extent, generational, and technical communicators must now consider how to bridge these generational boundaries that are likely to express themselves as technological preferences.”

I suppose what I’m saying is that the bridge between paper-based (with their traditional heuristics) and digital communication (which lets admit can be a free-for-all) is not heuristics.

Moving Away from Heuristics

What I’ve come to realize is, when it comes to digital communication, heuristics are effective starting points, but should never take the place of authentic communication. By authentic communication, I mean communication conceived of and designed to serve its particular audience and the content itself. This is the opposite of content designed to meet a preset structure (such as IMRAD).

In other words, instead of developing heuristics for digital communication (e.g. “A blog post has these five components” or “The services page on your website should cover three things”), what if we simply approach each rhetorically? Dave Clark in Digital Literacy discusses the “rhetoric of technology” which he contrasts against IMRAD without using that concept specifically.

So, the next time the marketing team wants some help structuring digital communication in particular, instead of writing up a heuristic they can use over and over again, I’m going to write a set of rhetorical questions they can rely on.

Posted on October 4, 2015, in Blogs, Digital, Literacy, Marketing, Metablogging, Social Media, Teaching, Workplace. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Chelsea Dowling

    One of the things I found interesting about your post is that you seem to a more theoretical approach to content. While I think this is part of the process, one of the things I am particularly interested in and attempt to work on within my own organization is formalized stakeholder analysis. Analyzing who my audience, what is it they want, and then correlating the content to develop targeted communications. So your post was interesting for me to ponder. I would think that my approach to developing a comprehensive communication plan aligns with this thought of your’s as being authentic. But when target demographics do vary, do you have to take a more broader, heuristic approach to developing communications?

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful questions, Chelsea.

    I think you’ve hit on exactly the problem with relying too heavily on heuristics, which cannot possible service every situation (e.g. a broad versus specific demographic). It’s for that reason I believe your comprehensive communication plan, which is really an analysis of the rhetorical situation, is required. In other words, I agree with you.

    It’s why I’m saying the heuristics I have developed in the past aren’t having their intended affect. I thought they would be launching pads to a thoughtful analysis. Instead, they became candy for marketing writers. It’s easier to follow a prescriptive outline than to perform an authentic analysis.

    This isn’t a criticism. Just an observation.

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