Monthly Archives: November 2018
Effectively addressing digital audiences is a critical function of being a technical writer. However, our authors this week demonstrate how difficult this task can be. Not only are audiences fragmented in a digital space (as Bernadette Longo points out in chapter 6), but there are many cultural practices and barriers that prevent us from communicating to everyone adequately (as Barry Thatcher shows in chapter 7).
Besides fragmentation and cultural barriers, I would argue that algorithms also create challenges for technical writers to adequately construct, address, and engage with digital audiences.
There are many algorithms that can make it challenging to form a digital audience. For example, Google’s algorithms can make it challenging for users to find your content. In order to rank on the first page, you have to follow rules and tackle specific key terms. I’ve learned that in order to get my articles to rank, they need to be over 1,000 words, mention the keyword more than once, link to multiple websites, have the article be linked on other websites, be published on a Google trusted site, be shared by others, have numerous pictures, and the list goes on.
If you follow these rules and algorithms, it can be quite easy to rank and gives users a means to find your content. However, these rules don’t make it easy to address audiences effectively. I have found myself spending so much time trying to meet the requirements (such as saying the keyword more than 50 times), that I wonder if I’m actually creating helpful content for users. The search results are also so competitive and manipulated that you have to write sensational headlines and more just to get noticed. I’m not saying it’s impossible to write SEO (search engine optimization) content and not have it be helpful, but it certainly presents a challenge to content writers to construct and address digital audiences effectively.
Tom Johnson, a well-known technical writer, states that writing good documentation can be challenging because it can feel like your writing to the “absent user”. That’s because documentation platforms provides little or no measurable means to track how users engage with your content. Of course, as Tom Johnson points out, there are numerous tools that can be used to gather knowledge and feedback of how users are engaging with your documentation — surveys, web analytics, plugins, etc.
Even though we have these tools, I believe Tom Johnson makes a good point that digital spaces (like documentation) don’t inherently give us many tools to understand how users engage with our content. I find this same challenge when writing a corporate blog. I know users are visiting my content due to web analytics and other marketing tools, but it can be difficult to know if the content is addressing their actual needs. In a digital space, the best means to get feedback from users is from surveys, but even this can be challenging because users are usually flooded with so many different forms of digital communication. And when users do take surveys, they can provide general, or extremely non-specific feedback.
No matter how you cut, the web (by design) does not give technical users many helpful ways to address their audiences. They must go out of their way to interact with end users and get feedback. I believe this is why technical writers have to train themselves to become more customer and UX-driven. Without these practices, technical communicators cannot be effective at their job.
Algorithms can also make it challenging for digital creators to create engaging content. For example, have you ever searched a simple question on YouTube and can only find 15 minute long videos that take forever to answer the question you searched? That’s because YouTube’s algorithm favors longer videos, which forces creators to prolong their videos to meet these arbitrary requirements. That means creators could be spending more time trying to extend their video length, rather than creating quality content that actually helps users with problems.
What to do?
While specific rules and algorithms can limit technical writers, they can be easily overcome. In the end, it’s the job of the technical writer to be aware of these rules and continue to find ways to communicate effectively despite them. It’s the reason why we are hired. We’re expected to not just know how to address audiences effectively, but know the algorithms that effect us from being able to communicate adequately.
This week we tackled Chapters 3-5 in Spilka’s 2010 text Digital Literacy. Working backwards with Chapter 5: “Content Management,” the chapter’s author William Hart-Davidson reassures us that technical communicators should not be so fretful about their profession since the proliferation of content management in the digital age will make their jobs more valuable, not less. However, he shares that “in an information economy, more workers will write” (p. 129). So while content management will alleviate some of the fears of job loss that technical communicators face, they must accept that more people in their organizations will write. In some ways, this gives technical writers even more to do; as in, do they become the gatekeepers of all communication? Realistically, they cannot. With an already-expanding job description, technical writers cannot manage all the tasks of content creation plus content management in a silo or as a solitary member of the team. They need help, which is where educators can help to reinforce the need for strong writing skills, across disciplines. Quotes like those help reinforce for my undergraduate students that they all need better writing skills, no matter what profession they are going into. If “communication is why companies operate,” then all workers must be better communicators (p. 135).
As I read chapters 3-5 of Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication (2010), I realized that as the instructor/content manager of multiple Blackboard shells for multiple classes, I am acting as a technical writer for the classes I teach. With a background in technical writing, I hope that I am skilled at thinking about usability, audience needs, and communication when I create those shells, but putting myself in the mind of a technical communicator can possibly allow me to see the areas where my students struggle, particularly important for online courses. In Chapter 4: “Information Design,” authors Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski explain how “technical communicators are well situated to contribute to the development of information spaces and to advocate for users needs in emerging digital spaces” (p. 105). My primary job as an instructor is to help my students understand and apply content, so it is in my best interest and theirs to give more consideration to how they use our digital spaces. Much of what the authors cover in this chapter aligns with what we discuss when reviewing audience analysis and writing purposes. The same tenets apply to critical literacy.
Salvo and Rosinski made me ponder how I apply the notions of granularity, mapping, signposting, metadata, and pattern language in my classes. Over the last several years, our college has created and mandated a standard template that all instructors must use in designing their Blackboard (like D2L) shells. The left-side navigation is all the same, and there are standard buttons we must all use; however, we can customize the design (colors and flair) of the Blackboard shell, add buttons, and arrange the content within the shell as we so choose. When this change was first proposed, there was faculty outcry about academic freedom, but the changes were user driven. Our students had complained about the lack of consistency from instructor to instructor, course to course. Looking over the shoulders of students as they try to find information helps me see where more or fewer signposts are needed. The authors caution that we shouldn’t expect users to remember a virtual space’s ambience, so adding in additional maps and signposts could be helpful (p. 12).
Finally, with Chapter 3: “Shaped and Shaping Tools,” author Dave Clark highlights three main theories we can begin to apply to the “rhetoric of technology” to better understand it, or to assess the “broader implications” and “potential influence” that technologies have on how we communicate (p. 87). This chapter inspired me to create an assignment that asks students to analyze their expectations of, experiences with, and performance of a certain tool, say Microsoft Word or PowerPoint. I’ve formerly assigned a rhetorical analysis of a piece of writing, but asking students to perform a rhetorical analysis on a tool of communication may be valuable to them and could reveal some real benefits and issues with those tools.
No doubt that new technologies and tools will carve new avenues of consideration for technical communicators and educators and will affect how we talk about and practice the rhetoric of technology. Just as the World Wide Web had to outgrow its ugly baby stage to reach maturation, all new tech tools will force societies to determine their best uses, standards, and rules. Again, the overarching theme of all of these three chapters seems to be to remain flexible and open to change, and to consider the hows and whys of what we do and how to do it best.
As video usage and video views continue to grow, so does the importance of making video a key part of digital design. A Forbes headline from June reads “Video Marketing in 2018 Continues to Explode.” Consider this statistic from the article: more than 500 million hours of videos are watched daily on YouTube. In a 2018 survey that Hubspot conducted, 81% of businesses reported using video as a marketing tool, which is up 18% from last year’s survey.
Video Placement Guidelines
Despite the increased profile of videos, many people still place them at the bottom of emails, hide them in links, or forget about them altogether. A 2015 article by Stjepan Alaupovic for OnlineVideo.net has some practical guidelines for the placement of video on websites:
- Use a simple video player that viewers are used to seeing such as YouTube or Vimeo with a video play button to provide a visual cue to users.
- Place videos above the fold (in the top part of the screen) and in a prominent spot so that viewers see them easily.
- Enhance search engine optimization (SEO) with good metadata including a description that includes the word video and a verbatim transcription.
Recently, my own firm was redesigning our website. When the plan for the site was presented at a meeting, video was not part of it. Not only is video a product of most agencies today, it is essential for capturing an audience’s attention and presenting information in today’s digital environment.
Video Gallery or Library
In Chapter 4 of Digital Literacy for Technical Communication on information design, Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski discuss the need for technical communicators to consider “findability” of documents and information. Today, users want to be able to find information in many formats including video. Websites should have a video gallery or library that is linked in a tab, card, or area of the homepage that is easy to see. Videos should be organized by category and playlists. Descriptive thumbnail images are useful, too.
Many organizations spend time, effort, and money producing videos, but they fail to consider where the video will be placed online, how it will be seen, and why users will view it. I recommend starting any video project by completing a video creative brief that lists a series of questions that should be considered. One of the most important questions to answer is “where will this video live online?” Below, you’ll find an example of a video creative brief.