Designed by humans. Used by humans. Never perfect.

 

Gosh, where do I begin? I love creating technological things. Whether it’s designing a website, creating Word templates, or forms, nothing screams that loudly that I’m a technical communicator. But what I create is not exactly perfect and nothing will be. What surprises me is who uses it and where it shows up.

At my current position at the community college, I am intrigued at what happens to my work. Sometimes it gets mixed up and reused for other purposes. Sometimes I end up reusing my own ideas to base new ideas with. For example, I take photos for the social media channels and sometimes I find that my work is reused and remixed for other purposes. I’m not upset that it gets reused, but I’m fascinated that people look to me for coming up with the idea and design of these communication pieces.

Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski explains that “[w]e build spaces and then we cannot control how users interact with them, and that horrifies and excited the ‘designer’ and the ‘architect’ inside each technical communicator.” In a sense, I’m not horrified or excited, but amused when my work pops up in the least expected places.

Different Flavors of Communicating

Information design is something that I am passionate for and somehow it’s funny that whatever we create, we build upon that framework for the next thing that we use in the future. For example, Twitter is one of those funny social media networks that is an alternative to other full-service networks. Since it’s designed to be open, anyone can find what they are looking for. Twitter is like the Southwest Airlines to social media experience, but it’s not like the full-service experience you can get with Facebook. In either case, Twitter is designed for replacing some aspects of instant messaging and live broadcasting, which would have taken the life of a telephone call and email.

I do like that email is being replaced by many other tools. Much like email replaced the idea of paper-based genres that were internalized and naturalized (Salvo, Rosinski, p. 105). But can we go to the extreme and say no more email? Luis Suarez from IBM quit using email as a primary means of communication and decided to use internal social media tools to communicate with his co-workers (2008). Perhaps maybe going too far won’t be sustainable for most of us technical communicators, yet maybe using a chat system like Slack and a project management tool like Asana can reduce the amount of unnecessary email overhead.

Designing Forms for the Web

When it comes to frameworks, creating and using online forms comes to my mind. I don’t know about the rest of the world, but online forms are difficult to design and use. I say this because at work, I sometimes have to rebuild forms using a form generator and they are not exactly going to function the same as the paper-based counterparts. I don’t like to tell clients that the form is going to not look visually the same as the form they’ve built in Word, but it will serve the same purpose. Instead, I sell the benefits of using an online form, which sometimes helps them make the move to using a form. I always will say that technology make things easier, it just doesn’t always look pretty.

Writing for the Web

In addition to making things not look so pretty is writing for the web. One of my biggest requests at work is adding an FAQ. Instead of tacking on an FAQ to a website, my job went to great lengths to explain why we don’t use them. For the web, we emphasize writing in plain language, use headers, bullets, paragraphs, and short sentences. In a sense, this reinforces one aspect of technical communication because we ensure contextual orientation to design.

What I wish we could do is explain to everyone else that we are the experts in what we do and people around us could at least understand that we aren’t making things up and this is based on best practices that have been tried, tested, and verified.

Lastly, I think these readings were quite interesting, but mostly topics I’ve learned from since attending conferences and experience in the workplace. It’s interesting how much of the communication within technology applies to our field.


References

Salvo M.J. (2010). Information Design. In Spilka, R. (2010). Digital literacy for technical communication: 21st century theory and practice. (pp. 51-81). Taylor & Francis. New York, NY.

Suarez, L. (2008, June 29). I freed myself from e-mail’s grip. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/29/jobs/29pre.html

 

About Roger Renteria

Professional Life: I am a technical communicator, writer, and presenter. Hobby Life: I'm a blues dancer, hiker, and foodie.

Posted on October 2, 2016, in Social Media. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Something that’s interesting to me is when the social media sites become repurposed or remediated beyond what their creators intended. I’m on my phone commenting so I’ll probably come back and edit this to add links to examples, but on a number of occasions the creators of Twitter have stated how surprised they are at how some businesses use their site for customer service and, of particular interest to me, how tweets can actually help people during times of crisis. More and more people turn to social media rather than official channels to find and share information. See this recent piece about how the Red Cross mismanaged the Louisiana Flood disaster http://www.nola.com/environment/index.ssf/2016/10/red_cross_baton_rouge.html. Meanwhile, locals were already organizing efforts in FB groups and around hashtags.

    • I use Twitter when I attend conferences because it is easier to set up and connect with other attendees. Since posts are publicly available, people can find me when I use certain hashtags. In a sense, those hashtags create a simple way to set up a mini social network for those temporary purposes.

      I know that Twitter is helpful in natural disasters and emergencies because people can connect without much effort. In some cases, people relied on Twitter as a matter of life and death. I remember in 2009 the U.S. State Department asked Twitter to delay network maintenance of their systems because of the protests in Iran. People relied on Twitter to communicate information due to other media/information embargoes and filters. http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2009/06/twitter-from-statedept-delay-upgrade-to-aid-iran-protests/

  2. Repurposing can be problematic as well–especially when the content being repurposed is separated from the context it was intended to inhabit. My team produces risk metrics that are consumed by high-level risk committees and executives. Each chart we publish is intended to be accompanied by the other charts and contextual information–without this other information, the original message is not only lost–it might become flip-flopped.

    We had a struggle for several months where somebody would cherry pick our deliverables, and then pass on bits and pieces without including the whole picture. And what would, with the context, be a positive message would end up looking negative. And, occasionally, they would even change something (fudge a data point or change explanatory wording, for instance), so the data itself was incorrect.

    So angry upper management from other departments would come to us demanding to know why the message was so negative, where we got our data, etc. And of course our upper management wanted to know why we were producing deliverables with bad data and incorrect messaging.

    We weren’t, of course–the problem was once our deliverables were out of our direct control, they took on a life of their own. We never found out who was distributing our materials incorrectly. However, we started plastering disclaimers and watermarks on everything we produce, and the problem largely went away.

    The whole debacle was a nightmare and definitely a cautionary tale of how repurposing can go horribly wrong.

  3. Roger, this was a really well written post. I love the concept of once you let your work out into the world, there it is to use or be used by whomever for whatever. Even with copywriting laws, etc. it’s of course possible for people to use other people’s intellectual property without their knowledge. When I worked for the county, we had to be very, very careful about using appropriate stock images for advertisements, brochures, and other printed and digital literature. We had to request permission with our IT department to make sure the licensing indicated free to use commercially. I even created a logo myself using Publisher and IT had to verify that I didn’t steal anything from the internet. That’s nice of you to not mind folks using your stuff in ways you might not have meant for it to be used. I guess I would feel that was as long as people weren’t taking credit for my hard work or using my stuff inappropriately.

  4. It is very interesting when someone creates something and then another person sees potential in that creation – using it in another way. It’s a form of scaffolding where we’re all building off of each other’s ideas. I had the same thought as Molly, in that we have to be very careful with all of the media we use. I created an ad campaign for a new young driver program. The company wanted me to purchase pictures from stock photos, but I did my own photography. My pictures were shot down twice. First, because I needed photo releases signed by everyone in the pictures. Second, because I used a girls volleyball team from the school where I taught – the company these ads were for wanted the posters to represent more diversity. In the end, I was able to use my own photography by getting all of the appropriate signatures and featuring a much more diverse group of kids. The approval process was intense.

    One thing I’m wondering is why you don’t like FAQ’s. I notice a lot of websites have them. I have a love-hate relationship with them. First, I find them to be very informational. The problem is that some companies use them as their “try to fix it yourself before calling us” resource. I’m interested in knowing why you don’t like to include them.

    • FAQs are not helpful because most of the time they are obvious questions that are found elsewhere on a website if the original content were written well. I understand that in a customer service model, FAQs may be great for customer deflection instead of having a business attempt to solve a customer’s issue over the phone or in-person. But how does the user feel if they are being told to check out the FAQ first? Why not get your website written well to avoid those issues to begin with?

      If content were written in action-oriented steps, clearly defined on a website through headers, meta descriptions, in-line URLs, and other visual cues, and make that information easily available places on a website, most likely FAQs will not be needed.

      At work, we discourage them because they create more work for readers, duplicate content found elsewhere on the website, and increase user frustration. Here’s why we avoid them: https://www.cnm.edu/webmaster/web-style-guide/faq-pages

      The interesting part is that we have the analytics to prove that FAQs have a higher bounce rate than the average page.

      My point is, FAQs are unnecessary shortcuts to creating content and are not of great value for the people who eventually use them. They might be great to build for internal staff use and developing content, but not great content to publish for the web.

      • I get so frustrated when I have a question there isn’t a FAQ. But I get even MORE frustrated, when there is a FAQ, but my question isn’t there. Take that how you will.

        • No one in the program thus far has really dived into the FAQ genre, so that would be an amazing idea for the final paper, especially since so many businesses have real-time q&a with customers too.

  5. You have a lot of great points in this point. I particularly love what you have to say about plain language and wanting users to trust that you know best.

    Working with re-purposed content was a bit of a problem for me in my last job. Subject matter experts would just dump their old policy documents into the new templates and forms without reading them or even seeing how their policy might have changed or updated over the years. The other Tech Editors and I spent a lot o time writing new policy and procedures. Whenever we tried to push back and get them to actually see that their issuances were living documents, that needed to be updated and even completely scrapped they would say, “well that’s what worked last time.”

    Your job seems to involve re-purposing images, formats, and templates which works well, but language exists on a less permanent scale. Even if your text accurately describes a process or teases an event, you have to ask yourself every so often: does this still work? Has anything happened that may affect the connotation or denotation of this?

    • I stress that plain language is much easier to understand and process. For one, you don’t need to formalize a sentences to get your point across. At my job, the website is my primary focus and we defined our website as a task-oriented website. People go to it to get information, take action, and leave. In an ideal environment, we could make content easier to read and skim through the use of headers and bullets.

      I understand that Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) don’t have time to review old documents and instead port their old information into new templates and forms. In a sense, they are breaking the content refresh lifecycle, which they need to add a step in their process to review their policies. Even if their documentation worked well last time, there is always room for improvement somewhere. I don’t like it when SMEs add more content without finding a way to simplify their existing content because at a certain point maintaining that content will become unsustainable and can possibly get trashed after so much effort was put into creating it.

      As for reusing images, format, and templates, I ask myself if the content I’m using will become stale. I know that in the world of social media, the lifespan of content is so short that I can get away repeating content until I feel it’s gotten too old and then I’ll come up with some fresh content. When we did a social media marketing campaign over the summer, each post used similar call-to-action statements but we varied it with different graphics. In that case, we were using the image to capture people’s attentions instead of the text.

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