Monthly Archives: November 2018

Social Norms in the Digital Wonderland

We have so many discussions surrounding how our communication and empathy have been altered by digital culture and community.  We’re still trying to define it and understand our own behaviors in this rapidly evolving hot digital world.  But it isn’t tangible and there aren’t unspoken, yet understood social norms to guide us through it.  So, maybe it is a digital wonderland where everything we once knew is now quite possibly, the opposite.  Do social norms exist once we are interacting in a digital community?  How could we possibly uphold them, if they were even defined, when there is no physical context in which to shame someone for not conforming?

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Mad Hatter Tea Party from Alice in Wonderland 

Photo source: Getty Images

Barry Thatcher, in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication (2010, p. 175), discusses three human threshold values that identify what humans usually negotiate within cultures.  Although there are more, these three tend to cause the most dilemmas in cross-cultural contexts and are the most connected to different uses of digital media.  The author asserts that cultures vary in the way that they handle these dilemmas, there usually is a yin/yang balance but also tension in which side is predominate… And that is what defines each cultures’ unique cultural integrity.

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Photo source: Getty Images

The first is shared across all cultures.  It is the dilemma of the “I” relating to others or to a group.  We are familiar with the American preference for individualism.  However, on the other side of that is collectivism.  This is when individuals see themselves as highly dependent within a social construct or community.  This is a cultural view holding social or family groups at higher importance than the individual, the “I”.  Collective communication patterns emphasize interpersonal relationships, social hierarchy, social leveraging, group identities, close personal space, and writer-friendly writing patterns. (Spilka, Ed., 2010, p. 176)  Can’t we see our digital interactions as both “I” and “We” driven?  Of course, but does it have the same construct as our traditional physical interaction?  It doesn’t seem so.  The rules seem to flip-flop a bit.

 

The second commonality is that all cultures make and enforce rules, but the reason they are created and the flexibility of their enforcement varies.  The universalist cultural approach is to establish the rules defining what is right to all individuals, regardless of social standing.  The communication patterns associated with universalist protocols include strategies of fairness, justice and equality.  However, the other approach is the particularist culture.  This approach is such that the rules and decisions are applied depending upon relations and context.  Thus there are specific sets of rules for each social relationship.  While both cultural types exist within physical construct such as the universalist culture being more applicable to countries such as the U.S., Western European countries, and Canada and the particularist culture more applicable to Latin America or Asian countries, how do these cultural communication types change when we interact online?  (Spilka, 2010, p. 177) Are Americans so universally standard in their digital world interactions or do they become more particularist, becoming more involved with individuals because of the anonymity our digital world offers us?  Could this be why people develop such strong digital relationships with people whom they’ve never met face-to-face?

 

Lastly, all cultures negotiate public/private sense of space.  This is the idea that human interaction is a degree of involvement across different spheres of life, and this usually involves some sort of divide and trust factor. (Spilka, 2010, p. 177). There are two different approaches to this, according to researchers.  Those are: diffuse or specific cultures.  A diffuse culture is usually collective; involving friends, coworkers, and other social acquaintances.  These are relationships that tend to involve aspects of your personal life, at times overlapping sections.  On the other hand, diffuse cultures can be those of high conflict, mistrust, and competition.  Quite the opposite, specific cultures are those of high public trust and ease that allow for relationships to exist within their own spheres with little crossover with others.  It favors more collaboration because the competitive piece is not relevant.  At what points do we interact collaboratively within our digital world and, then when do we behave more as in a diffuse culture.  I see the social media aspect of our digital world to be much more diffuse.  In one respect we are interacting as friends, but then also competing at who has the best life (from a digital perspective, at least).

 

All the aspects of communication and culture that are difficult enough to navigate in the traditional sense, seem to be at times upside down in the digital wonderland.

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Photo source: Getty Images

The Challenges of Addressing Digital Audiences

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.  

Constructing 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.

Search results for best IoT platform

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.

Addressing Audiences

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.

Google Analytics — An example of web analytic platform. Source: freeCodecamp

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.

Engaging Audiences

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.

Am I an Important Cultural Worker?

In Ch. 6 “Human + Machine Culture” by Bernadette Longo in Spilka’s text Digital Literacy, the definition of culture is easily broken into acts that include and exclude (p. 148). In order to feel part of a culture, whether that’s a college campus, a church, an ethnicity, or a city, one must draw borders and agree upon the boundaries of that community. This seemingly innocuous task is exclusionary. While it’s pleasant to believe in the democratizing force of the internet, we have learned in previous readings that the barriers to inclusion still exist, for rural areas, low-income areas, elderly populations, etc. From these last chapters of Spilka’s book we’ve also learned that cultural differences can exacerbate communication problems. Yet, we connect online despite these boundaries, contradictions, and limitations. Longo asks, “Can virtual social connections established within a human + machine culture satisfy our human need to connect with other people?” (p. 148). The answer seems to be no, not entirely, but they can alleviate some of those exclusionary tensions and we can work to draw a wider net around our culture(s).

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Cultural Communication Differences, courtesy of meetus@US

 

Longo also makes clear that as technical communicators or anyone who works with language, we have the “power to invite people in” because we are “important cultural workers” (p. 151-52). Because Longo deconstructs the idea that the online culture is universal or homogenous, she forces us to question how to make the communication tools we produce accessible to all in order to extend the cultural boundaries. As producers, we have the privilege and responsibility of deciding whose culture and knowledge will prevail, and historically we have erred on the side of science and logic do the effect of decimating other histories and cultures (p. 153). We prioritize the rational, the technique while subverting the imagination, nature, art, and pathos (p. 158). I went into the liberal arts because of those subversions, but I’ve immersed myself in logic, technique, and intent. Just as our society has evolved to prize the extrovert, the loudest, and most gregarious, it doesn’t mean that those people always have the best ideas. Does the same mentality apply to technical communication? Do we fall into the fallacy of doing things the same way because that’s the way we’ve always done them? I buck against the notion of free-flowing and “flowery’ help design menus but I’m basing that mostly on my own cultural training and preferences.

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Homogeneous vs. Heterogeneous, courtesy of Thesaurus.plus

I know I have been guilty of the worker (or user) as victim trope when designing technical documents in my early years (p. 159), but Longo illustrates that try as we might users will figure out their own ways to use our documentation, oftentimes not in the way we intended. People are ingenious and impatient. Doesn’t it behoove us to give them the benefit of the doubt, ask for their input, and design with their usability in mind rather than assume we know better than they do because we know more about the product than they (presumably) do? As usual, I will apply this to my current position as an educator. When I started teaching, I was terrified that students would ask me a question that I didn’t know the answer to and that I would have to admit that I didn’t know. I shake my head at how naive and pompous that now feels. Of course I don’t know everything, and my students’ experiences enable them to see content from entirely different perspectives than my own. Isn’t that richer? The more I’ve let myself stop being the primary keeper-of-knowledge and made my classroom collaborative and interactive, the more engaging it has become for all of us in the room.

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What it feels like during many mandatory professional development meetings (sitting and getting), courtesy of techlearning.com

 

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Control freaks unit!, courtesy of Psychology Today

I’m a planner and a bit of a control freak. I like to know what’s coming and I like to steer, but sometimes I learn more (and my students learn more) when we put the planner down and see where we end up. In Chapter 7: “Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures,” author Barry Thatcher asks technical communicators to return to the tenets of purpose, audience, and information needs, but also to organizational strategies and style preferences (p. 190). Perhaps that means that we have multiple forms of the same content but tailored to the audience. Maybe that means audiences can design the best content solution to fit their needs (though I don’t know how that’s engineered or executed well)? I am very much for examining our own cultural biases and ethnocentrism, but I acknowledge that it’s hard, dirty work. Just as jurors can never be completely objective (nor can any human being), it’s hard to set aside our own inherent cultural upbringing and fully understand or appreciate that another culture does it completely differently. Even as a I read the case study of the US vs. Mexican communication differences, I found myself automatically preferring the Western style. To me, it just made more sense.

Perhaps we start there. We stop to analyze why and to realize that people from other cultures feel equally justified in finding their way the “right way.” If communicating effectively came easy, we wouldn’t have to keep teaching ourselves how to do it. It doesn’t. Human beings are complex. Digital audiences are complex (p. 221). Blakeslee (Ch. 8) recommends we keep researching and applying what we learn, and we keep asking ourselves the hard, uncomfortable questions. That’s where the growth lies. As one of my favorite poets and late-great songwriters wrote,

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in” (Leonard Cohen).

Digitization Here, There, and Everywhere

I enjoyed this week’s readings, which challenged me to analyze several components of digital communication from various angles. Though all four chapters were thought-provoking, I think I was most intrigued by Chapter Eight, titled “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age”.

Reaching the Masses through Technology

It goes without saying that, in modern society, we rely heavily on technology while actively using it to communicate with audience segments of various sizes and demographics. In fact, there really isn’t a way to efficiently contact the masses in bulk without the help of technology. After all, even spammy snail-mail would require technology for mass printing.

Marketing Land

Image courtesy of Marketing Land

Technology aside, a general communication approach and style is contingent on several variables, including but not limited to:

  • Subject(s) – Sender(s) AND receiver(s) of message
  • Situation – What is the intended message and its purpose?
  • Setting – Where are we and what is our method of communication?

We communicate uniquely specific to these (and other) variables. Simply put, we cannot communicate with everyone via the same methods. Instead, we must be cognizant of or subject(s), situation, and setting while applying the appropriate communication approach.

This same mentality most certainly applies within our techno-ciety as well. Though it would be perfectly convenient to use the same digital platform(s) to communicate with people from all walks of life, this simply isn’t possible. Thankfully, there is no shortage of platform options.

It Starts with Social Media

Inner Ear

Image courtesy of Inner Ear

Social media, in its ever-growing nature, allows for efficient, effective communication with the masses. Accordingly, it continues to be the primary means of digital communication in our tech-niverse. However, with countless social media platforms available, it is important to devise a game plan (content strategy, if you will) to determine the appropriate platform(s) for each type of audience.

In devising a content strategy, I believe this is best achieved through market research. Sure, these days, a search engine would produce endless results on such a topic. However, instead of trying to create a “perfect” content strategy (spoiler alert: not possible), use your research as a general guide to determine what has and hasn’t been successful in the past for other technical communicators relying on social media.

Measuring Your Success

You’ve now invested time, effort, and (quite possibly) money in your social media campaigns. Therefore, you owe it to yourself to make sure your communication efforts are effectively reaching your intended audience(s). Accordingly, you should closely monitor your communication process along way.

The Media Online

Image courtesy of The Media Online

Throughout your technical communication journey, it is important to track audience engagement. Such tracking acts as the proverbial ‘pulse’ on your content strategy. Most commonly, engagement can be monitored through page follows/likes, direct messages, posts, comments, shares, and other such notifiers. Also, there are many available ‘extension’ platforms (several of which are free) that dig down deep into page analytics as specific as link-clicks and page views.

Community Trends, Chatbots and More

As we begin to move forward our human relationship, with technology (the machine), is beginning to bound us into certain communities. This whole idea of being a part of something, whether we want to or not, is beginning to set the stage for what’s next with the relationship between humans and machines.

online communities(Source: Google Images)

After reading the text, this week, Spilka stated throughout Chapter 6 this priority of, “Because I sense that there are human relationships beyond my machine and because I can communicate with other people in a virtual environment, together we will form some kind of community and culture based on those relationships and communication” (Spilka, 2010). We are all striving to be a part of what’s in front of our screen, whether we are searching, lurking or participating in conversations on social media, discussion boards and forums and even asking “Google” for our next answer.

Spilka goes further to highlight that both defined and undefined communities have boundaries. The author states, “In order to form a community, some people have to be included and other excluded” (Spilka, 2010).

In this blog, the author mentions the 5 important online community trends for 2018.

1. Platform Convergence
2. Automation of Community Management
3. Blockchain Technology
4. A Rise in Ideation Communities
5. Data Will Lead to Actionable Insights
Natasha, the author of, The Five Important Online Community Trends for 2018, says, “Online communities, on the other hand, offer an online ‘get-away’ with trustworthy, relevant news and the potential to create real involvement.” This was an interesting note in which the author relates these online communities, to a user’s ‘get-away.” While I began to consider what Natasha was exactly referring to, it made me realize why she coined these communities as “getaways.”

These ‘getaways’ are becoming the focal point to more than what Spilka notes in Chapter 7 as norms and rules pertaining to “Universal and particular” approaches to online environments (Spilka, 2010). They are becoming the basis for companies, advertisers and other users who are hoping to learn more about a product or service in which someone has shared their own experience with. Essentially, individuals are using these online “communities” to make their products better, share their own experiences and allow for a continued discourse between members of a company, individuals who share common interests with this product or service and for a stronger relationship between each of these “particular” communities. Even as we begin to associate ourselves as a product user, designer, or even a member of a certain company we began to “belong” to that network or community in a sense. Further, Spilka makes the connection that these “online communities” in which users share their feedback are not only helpful for the companies, brands and other individuals/potential customers, but also for technical communicators. Spilka states, “The digital environment gives writers more effective mechanisms than ever for obtaining this feedback. It also helps writers interact with and respond to readers: they can even respond immediately to readers’ needs. And, of course, writers can use reader feedback both to enhance their understanding of readers and to improved documents” (Spilka, 2010).

Take a look at this blog which mentions 23 different ways online communities are making an impact on a customer’s experience, not only for other like-minded customers, but also for the company and organization.

In all of this week’s context pertaining to communities, technology and how we “belong” to each of these communities whether we classify ourselves as part of a community or not, these interactions and our presence are shaping the future. It’s interesting to discover that Microsoft currently has a bot framework in existence which can referred to as, “Microsoft Azure.”

microsoft bot framework(Source: Google Images)

As technology continues to advance, do you see these communities “online” becoming stronger, weaker, less frequented, etc.?

Additional question that pertain to these “online” communities include:

  1. Will we be communicating more with chatbots?
  2. Will we be communicating more with actual people behind the screen?
  3. Will we be communicating with something completely new that’s never been exposed of before in these “online” communities or what will the “new online” era resemble?

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(Source: Google Images)

 

Resources:

Spilka, R. (2010). Digital literacy for technical communication: 21st century theory and practice. New York: Routledge.

Looking at Digital Literacy Through Different Lenses

Research Participant Lens

During my senior year in college, I worked with the electronic company, Magnavox, as a human participant in several research projects they were conducting to get a better feel for what their audience needed/desired with regard to installation instructions.  In each instance, I would be put into a room, alone, with their boxed product and asked to simply set it up based on the instructions in the box.  I was also asked to make edits to the instructions that I felt would help me, the user, to understand them better.  At the time, I was in it for the $100 paycheck I received after each task was finished.  However, looking back I realize that I played an important role in their consumer feedback!

In Chapter 8 of “Digital Literacy for Technical Communication” (Spilka 2010), author Ann Blakeslee discusses the subject of, “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age,” by conducting five case studies with technical writers from three different companies.

The findings from the five case studies, as a whole, support a problem-solving and contextualized approach to audience in digital environments in technical communication.  In particular, they suggest that while technical communicators may not know their exact audiences, the complexity of the product and the typical environments in which the product is used provide them with guidance in understanding their prospective readers.  Digital audience adaptation, therefore, requires a problem-solving approach that allows writers to identify and analyze their audiences and to learn about their audiences’ contexts and uses for documentation (p. 204).

Her research showed that, “writers have always used a set of heuristics and strategies for learning about their audiences and addressing them specifically.  (Her) findings support the continued use of such heuristics and suggest some specific ones for learning about and addressing digital audiences…some of (which) depend on or are facilitated by digital technologies.” These include:

    • targeting specific users and situations as a way to respond to and address audience needs;
    • developing personas;
    • Interacting with users;

Returning to my experiences with Magnavox, I can see that they put the first heuristic into practice.  However, the last three were not applicable/necessary.  Once I began my work of assembling and wiring the electronic devices, I was left alone (watched through a two-way window) and no help was offered.  I also did not receive any response to my feedback from those conducting the experiment.  As a matter of fact, I was instructed to put my feedback in a box on the table and leave the room when finished.  I picked up my check from the receptionist on my way out.  My only “response” from Magnavox was when I was contacted and asked to participate in the next round of research (I always assumed that meant I did well and my feedback was helpful).

Looking through this lens, I see the importance of giving feedback as a customer.  I like the idea that my voice will be heard, and more so, that someone may actually be listening.

Technical Writer Lens

Just a year after my research work with Magnavox, I began my own career as a Technical Writer for the small water heater company that I have written about several times this semester.  At that time, we didn’t have online documentation (2001), but as the writer of their print documentation, I often felt the need for audience feedback.  Much like Blakeslee’s case study writers from Tax Soft and Secure Net, my company prevented me “from having direct contact with…customers” (p. 208).  Most of my feedback came from the customer service representatives who would field calls from the (usually irate) customer and pass it down to me.  As case study participant, Amanda, said, “…we have to deal with it after the fact and so basically we have to find out from other people that we failed in order to succeed later” (p. 209).

I am not sure if I have shared this before, but my husband currently works for this company at which I was employed in 2001-2002.  It is no longer the small water heater company it once was as it was purchased about 10 years ago by the largest water heater manufacturer in the world, and now employs eight technical writers across the United States.  My husband is the Engineer/Manager to which the four writers at his facility report.  Of course, him being the “boss” keeps me from being able to return to work there as a technical writer (can you even imagine working for your spouse?), however, it also allows me to stay informed and have insight on the way things have changed since I worked for them as their only writer 16-17 years ago. In discussing this chapter with him, I asked whether the company had gone to any kind of digital communication.  He told me that they have, but only in the form of a searchable PDF file of the use and care manuals and installation instructions on their website.  None of those are set up in a way where the “user can access and go directly to the parts pertaining to them” (p. 205) or use them as “walk-throughs” (p. 206).  My husband also sits on the board and is acting Chairman of the ASHRAE (The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) committee, and, with further questioning, he reminded me that the safety standards (such as ANSI and CSA) require that certain warning labels pertaining to appliances be visible at all times in a written format.  That means that the documents cannot be easily taken apart and sectioned in a type of digital, click-what-you-need format.  If the information appears without a certain safety label in close proximity, the company stands liable should any harm be done or death occur.

While my husband’s company does not put a lot of written literature online due to standards issues, they do produce instructional videos such as this one A.O. Smith Water Heater Pressure Relief Valve for consumers looking to better understand or make small repairs to their water heater.  In fact, they have an entire website dedicated to water heater education called A.O. Smith University. They also have a section where they do live, recorded videos and they allow customers to text them questions during the show to be answered live.  Not exactly top of the line in digital literacy since the customer would have to know when the live show is being held and tune in at just that time to have his questions answered, but it is a start.

Looking through this lens, I see the challenges some companies and writers face when trying to keep up with the ever advancing technology and digital literacy.

Consumer Lens

As a consumer in the digital world, I like instant gratification.  Last week, I received an automated text message at midnight that I was almost out of data on my cell-phone.  How can that be?  The bill just cycled!  Several years ago, I would have placed a phone call to my cell phone provider the next morning and discussed the issue/options.  However, for this instance, I grabbed my iPad at 12:04 am and went to the Verizon app where I instantly began an online chat with customer service.  The representative was able to direct me to the portion of the app where I could see my usage where I realized that I had done a 5-hour live Facebook video the night before while on data.  OOPS.  Regardless, I chatted with him for over an hour while watching Criminal Minds on Hulu and painting my fingernails. I also made a bowl of noodles and called (loudly) for the dog who went outside at one point and hadn’t returned.  As the consumer in this situation, I preferred that hour long chat to a 15-20 minute phone call because it was convenient.  At the end, I received a customer satisfaction survey.  I marked each item accordingly and went back to watching my show on Hulu with a new, unlimited data plan for my next oopsie.

Looking through this lens, I certainly appreciate a heavy online, night or day, presence from the companies with which I do business.  I see the importance of understanding digital literacy and of a company putting it into practice.

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Image from Helpsocial.com

Step One of the Communicator’s Ultimate Goal

Getting an audience is hard.  Sustaining an audience is hard.  It demands a consistency of thought, of purpose, and of action over a long period of time.

– Bruce Springsteen

The Ultimate Goal of the Communicator

For communicators, reaching the audience is the ultimate goal, and doing so means gaining their attention and connecting with them so that communicators can teach, help, motivate, inspire or inform them.  Getting to this ultimate goal can be a challenge.  It’s not enough to understand a process and be able to document it.  It’s not enough to have a tremendous vocabulary and the ability to wield a grammatical sword.  The first step towards achieving this goal is for a communicator to know who the audience is. Then when connection has been made, we must keep the doorway open.  This is what it means to reach an audience, and it might be the single most important skill for any communicator.

All too often communicators make the mistake of generalizing an audience.  The nature of the digital age makes generalizing easy.  The machines we use  to make and send messages are often what we see – not the people we’re sending the messages to.  Bernadette Longo tackles this issue in her chapter of Digital Literacy for technical communicators titled, “Human + Machine Culture”.  She writes the following:

When I work at my computer, I may feel that my primary relationship is between myself and my machine (Longo, 2010, p. 147).

Her chapter focuses on culture and community within digital communication, and how it directly relates to technical communicators.  Within this context, she defines culture as follows:

In this understanding of the term, “culture” refers to the way in which people relate to each other within a particular social context – how their values, beliefs, assumptions, worldview and so on are manifested through everyday actions and decisions (Longo, 2010, p. 149).

Differences Between a Community and a Social Network

A community can exist without it being a social network.  Howard Reingold, in his book Net Smart, describes this difference.  Online communities are networks where people can go to communicate, but a social network is where people establish and cultivate relationships.  Reingold writes,

To me, the difference between an online social network and a community has to do with the quality, continuity, and degree of commitment in the relationship between members.  This comes down to whether participants care about each other and are willing to act on their feelings (Reingold, 2012, p. 163).

So, with social networks, it’s easier to get feedback and get to know an audience.  But, with communities, this can be a challenge.  To illustrate, we’ll take a look at a specific type of community – company intranet sites.  These are the hubs where information is posted for internal customers, or employees of an organization.  Companies often have many sub-groups within their organization, each of which has its own culture.  Communication is going in one direction – out to the audience.  This can make it very difficult to determine what and how to post on the company intranet site.  In this type of network environment, it’s easy to generalize the audience.  Having a deep understanding of an audience is crucial for making connections and reaching them.  Blakeslee writes,

Abstractions and generalizations simply are not sufficient for addressing our audiences effectively in digital environments.  What writers need, instead, is a full, accurate – and contextualized – understanding of their audiences.  One way to acquire this, which was addressed by all writers from my cases, is to interact directly with members of our audiences (Blakeslee, 2010, p. 220).

4 Common Heuristics to Identify an Audience

The first step in reaching the audience is using some tried and true ways to learn more about them.  There are 4 common heuristics used by communicators in identifying an audience.  They are as follows:

  • targeting specific audiences
  • creating personas
  • interacting directly with the audience
  • gathering feedback from the audience, and applying it

Let’s take a brief look at how these four methods can help to identify an audience.

Creating personas helps to understand general groups within an audience, such as specific generations.  The following is a persona I developed for a presentation I did on the communication styles of the different generations in the current workforce.

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created by Lisa Rohloff

One of the best ways to understand a specific audience is to conduct focus groups.  This is a great idea for large organizations that have many sub-groups.  Meeting in person with individuals in a focus group can be of tremendous help for communicators and their audiences.  It is a way to break down barriers, identify roadblocks, and make a truly personal connection with an audience.  Valuable feedback can be obtained from focus groups.  Using surveys is another good way to get feedback.  Personas, interacting directly and gathering feedback are all ways that can help drive towards targeting specific audiences, and coming up with communication strategies that work.  Blakeslee writes,

From all this research, we can move beyond speculation and guesswork and develop a more coherent, substantial, and comprehensive approach to thinking about and addressing digital audiences (Blakeslee, 2010, p. 223).

Conclusion

Reaching an audience is more than just knowing how to write or create pretty visuals.  It’s more than being a subject matter expert or knowing how to document a process.  It starts with knowing your audience and making a connection with them.  To do this, there are several methods that work such as, creating personas, interacting with people, obtaining feedback, and targeting specific audiences with specific messages.  Once the audience is clearly identified, communicators can move on to the next step – creating messages that will reach their audience.

Viewing China’s Social Credit System Through a Cultural Lens

Hong Kong street

A street in Hong Kong from Getty Images

In Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, Barry Thatcher writes about understanding digital literacy across cultures. He points out that ethnocentrism about the way digital media will be used is common in U.S. research and theory. Thatcher advises technical communicators to consider the cultural aspects of a technology’s audience. He discusses the difference between individual vs. collective, universal vs. particular, and specific vs. diffuse. Thatcher uses China as an example of a collective culture. He writes that collective cultures “emphasize solidarity in relations, the common good of the group, and little need to focus on individuals.” By contrast, the U.S., Thatcher explains, values individualism.

An interesting case to examine how audiences view technology through a cultural lens is China’s social credit system. Recently, I read an article about China’s plan to monitor and rank its 1.4 billion citizens according to a social score in a system that punishes and rewards them for their behavior. Alexandra Ma of Business Insider reports the system is expected to be fully operational by 2020, but millions of people are already part of pilot programs.

“Like private credit scores, a person’s social score can move up and down depending on their behavior. The exact methodology is a secret — but examples of infractions include bad driving, smoking in non-smoking zones, buying too many video games and posting fake news online,” writes Ma.

Ma reports that local governments in China monitor behavior, and millions of Chinese people with low social credit scores are being punished by:

  • Banning them from travel and hotels
  • Blocking their children from the best schools
  • Preventing them from working in state-owned businesses
  • Putting them on blacklists for getting government contracts or credit cards
  • Slowing their internet speeds
  • Confiscating their dogs

Those with good social scores, according to Ma, get more matches on dating websites, discounts on energy bills, and better interest rates at banks.

Reaction to the system seems to depend on cultural values. Simina Mistreanu in an article for the website Foreign Policy explains the system is meant to promote trustworthiness in China’s economy and society. On the website What’s on Weibo, an article by Manya Koetse compares media coverage of the social credit system on Chinese online media versus Western media. Koetse writes that in Western media the social credit system is described in dark ways such as Orwellian, dystopian, chilling, or creepy. Chinese reaction is more positive. A citizen is quoted saying, “I feel like in the past six months, people’s behavior has gotten better and better. For example, when we drive, now we always stop in front of crosswalks. If you don’t stop, you will lose your points. At first, we just worried about losing points, but now we got used to it.”

These differences in the way Chinese media and Western media cover the story may be based in our cultural views. In China, the collective good is paramount, but in the U.S., we value individual rights. Most Americans would view a social credit system as an infringement of our freedom even though in the U.S. we do have systems that monitor the behavior of people and companies. We have financial credit scores, but they are mostly private and only accessed by authorized people and companies, and many states, such as Illinois, have banned the use of credit reports for job applications. The federal government maintains a no-fly list; however, it’s only for suspected terrorists. State and local governments have sex offender lists…only for people convicted in a court of law. Businesses may be rated through organizations such as the Better Business Bureau and websites like Yelp and Amazon, but these are not created by the government.

In my opinion, China’s social credit system is an interesting idea, but it would never work in the U.S. Americans would not want the government to have too much control over our lives. Furthermore, people would figure out a way to get around it and abuse it. Overall, its potential negative effects far outweigh its benefits.

Recruitment and Digital Audiences

Recruitment and Digital Audiences

Blakeslee in “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age,” describes technical communication as it interacts with user-centered design, or UX. As communicators, it’s ingrained in us to keep the audience as the forefront of creating any materials, both in writing and design, so that the audience engaging with the material can process it easier, quicker and more intuitively. However, with the shift to digital communication, specifically digital reading of documents, it’s critical that we re examine if the audience has changed. Blakeslee says, “The thinking here is that technology potentially makes our writing accessible to a much broader audience than before” (p. 201).

UX

Photo from: https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/the-7-factors-that-influence-user-experience

Anything published on the internet could essentially be accessed by any user with a computer. These users have different identifies, cultures, languages, preferences, etc. So how can documents, which are published online, be written with a specific audience in mind? Can they be written for a specific audience? What boundaries are in place to create these communities.

These questions from Blakeslee reminded me of recruitment materials I utilize at work. As a reminder, I work at UW-Madison in the Mechanical Engineering Department. There has recently been a major push to create new online and in-person accelerated Master of Science programs for our department.

Download the PDF here.

We have a variety of target audiences for these programs, but one of the target audiences in international students. We partner with a number of schools in India and China and they are some of the student we aim to recruit into these programs. I don’t work directly with creating or distributing recruitment materials, but our graduation admissions office does and I am included in many of these meetings. In the early stages of discussing partnerships with schools and these programs, we knew immediately that we would have to adjust our materials to fit the international audience. Some of these adjustments included re-ordering information on the flier so international tuition rates are listed first and selling not only the program but the City of Madison and the State of Wisconsin as well. Whereas with resident students, they likely already know about the State of Wisconsin and City of Madison. Additionally, it was important to adjust the language so that it fit the skill level of the international students.

To test these materials, we started with developing personas, as Blakeslee discusses, but really found the most value out of interacting with readers. As Blakeslee says, “another valuable heuristic for learning about and understanding reader needs is interaction, especially with actual readers” (p.208). We at UW-Madison are lucky to have a number of international students who are from the universities in India and China that we are partnering with, so we have access to these students who are already on our campus. The design team developed the materials and then tested those materials in a session with volunteer students from these partner universities to watch how they read and understood the information. (Thank goddess for free pizza, it really brings the graduate students into a room!) By watching these students process the information and having a discussion with them it was easy to make changes to the document based on that specific audience.

It may sound like an ideal situation, and maybe it is, but it worked. We have had positive feedback from the materials we have sent to these universities and our enrollment numbers from students at those universities coming into our programs continues to grow. So  yeah, it’s difficult to keep the audience in mind when publishing documents for the whole world to see, but in reality there are almost always going to be some type of restraints on the community of people you are targeting with messaging. For us, it was retraining the target audience to international mechanical engineering students who were possibly interested in a masters degree. Knowing those boundaries narrowed the audience, even though the information is published on a public facing website for the world to see.

Making Sense of Maps, the Internet and the User…

Our experience on the World Wide Web (WWW) is mapped out, but what does this really look like and how is it played out?

internet and web mapSource: http://comprivacy.web.unc.edu/current-privacy-laws/the-internet-and-the-world-wide-web/ 

As technology continues to advance and our access and usage of the information readily available becomes more frequent we are creating traces for the internet to mock or even predict what we want to see. Being followed, mocked or even clicking on specific content whether you are looking for yourself or someone else begins to create a pattern of browsing history, whether for the good or bad. What you click on can help brands and organizations use algorithms and your browsing history to predict your future actions or show you content you are more likely to engage with based on your search history!

Even web developers are using mapping techniques. Spilka states,”When designers create sitemaps, their attention becomes focused on document features or virtual space as a type of information design: organization becomes an invention strategy, a method of arrangement, and a way to increase the likelihood that the information will serve audience needs and correspond to user assumptions and expectations” (Spilka, 2010). As you can see their a players behind the screens who are helping websites be more efficient at predicting what it is that they want their users to “use theirs site” for. Web developers are using the world wide web to better fine tune their audience and present them with the information they hope to see. In congruence with what the web developers are doing, site notifications are a new visual you may begin to notice when you click on a site.

Here is what a website notification on Google Chrome looks like.

notifcationsSource: Google Images

This notification may prompt the user to click “allow” or “block” in order to continue to see notifications that pertain to this site. If the user proceeds with clicking “allow,” this will enable the website you selected “allow” notifications for to send you any related updates.

If you are an individual that didn’t even know this existed or typically select, “allow” to remove the notification from what you are trying to look at. Check out the fowling link to see what notifications you have that pre exist and how remove these notifications, if interested, or what to do in the future: https://www.howtogeek.com/288946/how-to-stop-websites-from-asking-to-show-notifications/

Going further, Spilka reiterates this, “Becoming a mapmaker means selecting and arranging pre existing information in order to assist a user in learning something or accomplishing some task, often with visual extra-textual display of the data” (Spilka, 2010). So, is this trend becoming to invasive for our searches on the internet or is it aiding us by providing us with the information we are most likely to engage with depending on our internet searches and interests?

Teaching Take-aways Concerning Digital Literacy

 

CollaborativeWriting

Collaborative writing, courtesy of KQED

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).

Blackboard

LMS like Blackboard offer educators chances to act as technical communicators again. Courtesy of AppAdvice

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).

Signposts

Signposts, courtesy of Hillcrest Primary School

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.

What’s in a Blog?

Have you ever noticed what makes you continue to read a blog or bounce after the first few moments?  Is it the blogger’s words?  Too many, too little, too boring, too complicated, or completely irrelevant to your search?  Or could it be the layout?  Overly cluttered or not broken up with images?  The appeal of a blog is unique to each individual.  So, how can a blogger create a product appealing enough to gain traction?

Paper on vintage typewriter with words blog typed on paper

Photo source: Getty Images

Throughout the Communication Strategies for Emerging Media course, we learn how to create relevant and appealing blogs that embody the ideal structure and flow for effectiveness. Blogging, like all forms of technical communication, has its own style and character.  What’s done on Twitter or Instagram, doesn’t have the same appeal or value in a professional blog. I’ve learned through this course and then analyzing my own interaction with blogs, that the simpler is better.  I’m much more likely to read something all the way through if it is concise and not overly wordy.

 

Digital Literacy for Technical Communication (Spilka, Ed., 2010) offers good technical writing practices that apply well to blogging platforms.  Granularity is a term used in technical writing that explains effective digital spaces should have a balance of text-based information chunks and multimedia applications.  However, depending upon the audience, the way that is done is not always the same.  We must understand our audience and the message we are trying to deliver. Granularity furthermore, has three levels of magnification to consider: microscopic (close perspective), mesoscopic (middle perspective), and macroscopic (far perspective). The microscopic perspective involves aspects such as text size, font, paragraph placement and length, and white space.  While mesoscopic and macroscopic perspectives consider broader matters such as, multiple document delivery over various lengths of time. (p. 111)

 

Mapping or blog arrangement are also very important to audience appeal.  An overly cluttered blog without a clear content menu leads to audience uncertainty or distrust.  Organization is a strategy that can build blog appeal and reputation.  The content itself should be clean and well arranged.  However, a blogger should also consider ads or the minimization of, also in the mapping schema.  No one likes to try to read a blog with ads blinking all around the content.

Simple web flowchart or sitemap with space for your content or copy.

Photo Source: Getty Images

Ambience is a critical factor in all works of art and design, including digital communication.  Ambient design allows the audience to to understand the purpose and content of a blog.  The design should be created in a way that this perspective can be gained by only a quick glance.  This allows ease of use and guides the audience through the blog interaction. (p. 120-121)  Furthermore, this overall design strategy establishes trust and audience comfort, which are crucial in a popular blog.  Images are important in creating the intended ambience.  To choose the correct supporting images, it is important to have a well defined blog purpose and to understand your desired audience well. Aesthetics are also very important to creating an appealing blog site.

IMG_0042

This is a photograph of mine, with some filter experimentation.  It creates a unique feel that could be appealing in certain blogs involving photography, art, or even cats.

 

Folksonomy is also known as social tagging, social indexing, tagging, etc.  It is a method by which content can be created and managed, via tags, to categorize the content.  (p. 118) This method of tagging and categorizing content is done all over social media, the Web, and in blogging.  As we write our blogs, we choose the categories/tags we want connected to our content so that it appears in relevant user searches.  Aside from administrative blog tools, we can also accomplish this via hashtags which are trackable throughout social media (if our blogs are shared to those platforms) and the Web.

 

As technical and digital communication advances, we also make changes to improve the functionality and appeal of our blogs.  While blogs are still very relevant, vlogs are quickly gaining attention.  With that in mind, it will be interesting to see  how the technical communicator roles develop should consumption of media become more video based.  The technical writing practices could shift into video production.  One could argue that they already have…

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Photo Source: Getty Images

Content Management and Leadership. Content Playbooks? Content Leadership?

This week’s readings revisited a number of concepts that I’ve learned throughout the technical and professional communication program.

Chapters 2, 3, and 5 essentially summarize that technical communicators should not just view themselves as writers, but also rhetorical tool experts, information designers, and content managers. It was a solid review and there were actually some things that caused me to stop and think more deeply about my own role as a technical writer.

Content Management Perspectives

For instance, Hart-Davidson makes an argument that there are three perspectives for creating and managing content in Chapter 5.

  • The first perspective is making texts — this is the dirty work, the actual writing we do for clients, users, and customers.
  • The second perspective is creating and managing information assets — from my understanding, this is the process of making content reusable and “evergreen”.
  • Lastly, (and this is the part that made me think more deeply) Hart-Davidson argues content mangers should design and manage workflows and production models — this last perspective focuses on the responsibilities of those who are involved with content management in an organization context.

Hart-Davidson elaborates more on this third perspective later in the chapter:

“Here, technical communicators take on supervisory roles at the level of a team . . . They study how people work to create and manage information and they then look to make improvements.”

After reading this, I started to ask myself, “How do we do that?” Particularly when we’re not always in leadership roles to manage how other people create and manage information? The answer sounds simple, but I’ve found it to be rather difficult in some instances.

The Content Playbook

For example — this week, my team conducted our monthly content calendar review to discuss what will be published in the month of November. This meeting included my directors and other marketers. During this meeting, me and the other content manager started to discuss our process for creating and publishing new content. As we were explaining this, my director suggested that we make a “content playbook” that basically describes the process of how we publish content.

Now, this isn’t the first time my director has asked for something like this. He has briefly brought up a similar request months ago. However, I haven’t acted upon this request because it sounds like a waste of time. Not because I feel it is a bad idea necessarily, I don’t think anyone will actually use it. Immediately, my content management brain kicks in because I think, “Who is going to read that?

Should I be spending time creating a playbook for something that (that I feel) no one will read? At my work, there are only two content managers (me and another writer on a separate marketing team). I feel he would be the only other writer who would benefit from something like this. However, after reading this week’s readings, I may be feeling differently.

Content Leadership

If I was to put on my managerial content marketing hat, or as Hart-Davidson describes ” study how people work to create and manage information and then look to make improvements”, I would have a few recommendations.

One thing that I wish the other writers would do is amplify the content they have created. Once they publish an article on the company blog, they do not try to republish it on other websites or share it that often enough on social media. Earlier this week, I was listening to a presentation about why content marketing fails and the podcasters mention that writers often fail to ask this simple question during the content creation process:

why-content-marketing-fails-47-638.jpg

Source: Slideshare: Why Content Marketing Fails

I do not feel the other writers ask this question. Typically, I’ve chosen to just do my own thing and not worry about the process in which they publish content. But, our readings this week have got me thinking more about it. How do you lead others to write and manage content effectively? How do you become a content leader and inspire others?

Content Management Revisited

Like I mentioned before, the readings this week got me thinking about the content playbook. If I created a content playbook that describes how to amplify your content, would that change anything? I’ve shown my colleagues the results and statistics of amplifying their content, and that still doesn’t seem to change anything.

But maybe it’s not that simple. In the same presentation that I mentioned earlier, they suggest that content marketers don’t try enough. If their efforts fail, they should try again. Maybe I should at least try this content playbook.

I’m interested to know what you guys think. If your director suggested you write a content playbook. What would you do? Have you already done it? Do you feel others (have or would) use it? What are other ways you manage the content and information in your own organizations?

The Yin Yang of Technological Advancements

Since I have been out of the field of technical communication for the last 15 years, this week’s readings framed my understanding of some of the changes that have taken place since I left.  It seems there has been a major shift to all things digital.  While I have no work experience in the field to share and relate to this week, I did find that I was able to relate my direct sales experiences to those of my mom 25 years ago.  Much has changed, and the shift has seemed natural and easy.  As a matter of fact, I am quite thankful for many of the changes and I am beginning to see that, while I have not been a professional writer over the last 15 years and I have not had experience with the changing publishing software, I have certainly kept up with the changes in digital and social media by virtue of simply keeping with the times.

Twenty-five years ago, my mom decided to begin selling Mary Kay Cosmetics on the side to supplement the income from her full-time retail management job.

Message-in-a-bottle-party-invitation-idea-Add-a-handwritten-note

Source: candiecooper.com

I was fourteen and she would often enlist my help in handwriting her party invitations that she would give to friends in the mall where she worked.  She personally handed out each invitation and answered any questions the guest may have.  She also asked that each one RSVP if they planned to attend.  The night of the party, she would usually have each person that RSVP’d show up, occasionally with a friend, but not often.  In the end, she had a small circle of friends who purchased their make-up from her.  After a few years, she lost interest in the business and became more active in her full time career and that was the last I heard of direct sales until I was an adult, married with children, who had decided to put my career on hold.

As soon as I entered the world of direct sales, I knew much had changed since the days of helping my mom with her Mary Kay party invitations. My business is done almost completely online.  My invitations are events that I create on Facebook through my business page and share with my customers or give to my party hostesses to share with their friends and family members (see section “More on Facebook Events” below for my thoughts on this aspect).  My actual parties are done via my phone camera and broadcast as a Facebook Live video.  Gone are the days where my mom would spend hours cleaning the house and baking treats for her Mary Kay guests.  I go into my office, put a photo screen behind me to block out any mess from the day and keep my video background clean and focused, and hit “go live.”  I am also not limited to an audience of my friend circle and their friend circles.  My reach extends across the US as people share my video with their own Facebook friends and family.  While I find myself having some nostalgia for the “old way” and that “personal touch,” I admit that my business is much more successful than my mom’s because I am able to reach so many more customers due to the way I use social media to conduct my business.

I am also constantly looking for ways to use social media more effectively for my business.  As things continue to change in the world of technology, I often find that something that “worked” for me last month has stopped drawing the same response or interest.  That is when I go searching for answers online.  Check out this blog post I recently found:  42 Facebook Post Ideas from Businesses Who Know What They are Doing.  Fellow Students – I think it could also be helpful as we begin to write our final papers for this course.

More on Facebook Events

Facebook Events seem to be the social media preferred way to invite people to do almost anything.  It is simple in that the host just creates an event, fills in the details, and invites most of their Facebook friends list with the click of a few buttons.  To see just HOW easy, check out this quick YouTube Video on How to Create a Facebook Event. The drawback?  Those invitations have lost that personal touch in a way that seems to be affecting the outcome of the event.  While wedding and graduation invitations are still sacred and more personal (usually snail-mailed), I receive about fifteen invites on Facebook each week to join a direct sales online party, to come to a friend’s child’s birthday party – even to attend our family Thanksgiving dinner!

In chapter 4 of Spilka’s “Digital Literacy for Technical Communication,” authors Salvo & Rosinski discuss Johnson’s (1998) research and ask us to,

“Consider memos, parking tickets, wedding invitations, white papers, and reports for decision making: each of these genres carries part of the message in visual design and physical presentation.  The design indicates a range of possible responses to the text.  One can accept or decline an invitation…Johnson reminds technical communicators of the power of inherent design and presentation: while innovation is possible, it comes at a cost.  Innovative documents man not carry with them clear boundaries for readers” (p. 108).

This paragraph resonated with me especially as I considered the part about how, “One accept or decline an invitation…” (p. 108).  Facebook events are so impersonal and so generally disregarded by most people that, often, invitees will click “maybe” on an event and never show up.

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Source: graphjam.com

Maybe they never intended to show up, maybe they had some interest and lost that interest before the event, or maybe they forgot.  Whatever the case, Facebook events are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to any kind of RSVP or guest count abilities.

In my business, I will create an event for my customers who wish to host a party.  That event links me with their friends so they can invite and I can share what this party is all about and how they can go about shopping.  While this method of inviting is convenient (most of my hostesses live across the country), they aren’t always the best method when it comes to getting friends interested and to actually attend the Live party.  So many hostesses will complain after the party, “My friends said they were coming and only x showed!  I can’t believe it!”  Well, I can.  It happens every time.

Another ongoing issue with Facebook events is that sometimes the invitees never see the invitation.  Recently, a dear friend invited me to her son’s birthday party via a Facebook event.  I never saw the invite.  She called me a week after the party saying that they missed me and I was totally clueless.  Technology is awesome, but nothing beats getting a small, hand-written birthday party invitation in the mail.  It shows me that I wasn’t an afterthought to my friend – or part of her, “I’m in a hurry, click, click, click” guest list, but instead I am a treasured friend for whom she made time and gave an effort to invite.

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Source: Imagur.com

While I am appreciative of technological advancements for business purposes, I wish it wasn’t also taking over in regard to the way we communicate with true friends and family.  Where are we going to draw that line?

Content Management: Simply Complicated

I enjoyed this week’s assigned readings from Rachel Spilka’s “Digital Literacy for Technical Communication”, which I found to be quite thought-provoking. However, between the three chapters, I was most intrigued by Chapter 5, William Hart-Davidson’s “Content Management: Beyond Single-Sourcing”.

Hart-Davidson defines “content management” as “a set of practices for handling information, including how it is created, stored, retrieved, formatted, and styled for delivery” (p. 130). While this basic definition accurately summarizes my general understanding of content management, I appreciate how Hart-Davidson thoroughly explores the process while detailing its evolution.

Content Management 2

Image courtesy of Das Tor News

As Hart-Davidson explains, a Content Manager has many responsibilities, making him/her an integral cog within an organization. However, before a Content Manager can take on such responsibilities, a content strategy must first be devised and implemented, preferably by the Content Manager AND his/her colleagues. If this crucial first step is skipped, the content will not maintain consistency with regard to format/style, organization, or placement. Sure, the organization’s decision-makers may provide free rein to the Content Manager, allowing him/her to make executive decisions with regard to content. However, I have firsthand professional experience that suggests this could greatly backfire.

Just over two years ago, I was hired as a Content Editor for a reputable pipe & supply company on the south side of Chicago. Though a Content Editor is not the same as a Content Manager, the former belongs under the proverbial umbrella of the latter, with the two sharing several of the same responsibilities. In my role as Content Editor, I was responsible for creating and maintaining product descriptions/navigation for this company’s new eCommerce website. However, having not previously worked in the supply chain industry, I blindly stumbled into this role without a clear blueprint in place.

Regardless, having received minimal direction, I did the best I could in this role, having surprised myself and others with how well things turned out. However, despite some positive feedback from my colleagues, there were several others who were displeased with my product layout. Accordingly, this layout was reworked several times over by me and others as we aimed to create something that everyone would be satisfied with. Unfortunately (but perhaps not surprisingly), this did not happen.

I have to imagine that no work-related project will ever appease all employees within an organization, regardless of how much time and effort goes into it. However, I firmly believe that, had my colleagues and I worked to establish a blueprint that (most of us) agreed on, this product layout would have required far fewer redos thereafter. In other words, had we actually executed the first step, the subsequent steps would have been far smoother.

Content Management 1

Image courtesy of GetRedtie

In summation of Chapter 5, my general takeaway is that the larger an organization is, the greater the amount of pressure on the organization’s Content Manager. While this may seem like common sense, I do think such an individual’s performance could “make or break” an organization’s, productivity, workflow, results, and bottom line.

The Hidden Gem

It’s 8:10 am on a Monday morning at XCorp.  Knowledge workers are making their way up the stairs to their respective cubicles – backpacks strapped on and coffee in hand.  Stacey, a Data Analyst, revs up her computer, logs on and checks her calendar for the day.  She has a 9:00 am meeting with an IT manager in which she needs to present some data analytics on an IT project that is being implemented  this week.  So she gets right to work gathering the data she had collected the previous week.  She spends the next 40 minutes gathering her files, finding documents on the project site, and asking her co-worker, Jon, for the excel book he has been working on.  As she enters the conference room at precisely 8:58 am, Stacey realizes she’s missing an important document.  Apologizing for the delay, she opens her laptop, searches for and finds the document.  The meeting starts at 9:10 am after an hour of information gathering. 

This story is an example of something that happens all too often.  An article in LinkedIn  shows that knowledge workers are spending up to 8 hours of a 40 hour work week searching for information.  A survey of over 300 knowledge workers in the US and UK, revealed that it is taking workers a significant amount of their time to find information.  In his description of the survey results, Bernstein writes,

“It takes workers up to eight searches to find the right document and information, according to 80% of respondents” (Bernstein, 2013).

Why We Need Good Content Management in Organizations

Knowledge workers have become masters at creating all sorts of content; they create presentations, single point lessons, graphs and diagrams, spreadsheets, newsletters, memos, and much more on a daily basis.  Often a great deal of effort is spent on the creation of these materials while very little is given to how they will be managed.

Enter content management.  Having a good content management system in place can be one of an organizations best attributes.  In the book Digital Literacy, William Hart-Davidson provides a definition of content management when he writes,

“The term “content management” generally refers to a set of practices for handling information, including how it is created, stored, retrieved, formatted, and styled for delivery” (Hart-Davidson, 2010).

How Technical Communicators Can Enhance Content Managment

In our quest to understand the role of a technical communicator, we can think about content management.  Technical communicators have a unique set of skills that makes them perfect for CM.  So what are some of the specific skills technical communicators have that make them perfect for a role as content manager?  Hart-Davidson describes these when he writes,

“The following are three perspectives, or categories for creating and managing content.

    • Making texts – here texts are understood as more or less coherent wholes sometimes called “information products” or “information types;” these are the genres that a particular organization makes for its clients, users, and customers, and its own members or workforce.
    • Creating and managing information assets, defining relationships among these, and specifying display conditions for specific views of these – an object-oriented world view prevails in this perspective, ideally balancing the interests of users/readers with those of content producers; unlike the text-making perspective, the focus here is on ensuring that all the elements are in place to make text-making possible, scalable, and effective for all those involved.
    • Designing and managing workflows and production models – the third perspective focuses on the roles and responsibilities of those involved in content creation and management, including users in some production models; within organizations, this third way of seeing offers a managerial perspective; across organizations it incorporates the interests of partners and clients (think, here, of a supply chain)” (Hart-Davidson, 2010).

Conclusion

These are all skills in which technical communicators are masters.  Many organizations have CM issues, and many organizations have technical communicators who are not being leveraged to help with the organization’s CM.  If they have the skills to successfully manage content,  and they know how to use the CM tools that are available, why aren’t more organizations seeing technical communicators for the value they can provide them in regards to CM? Perhaps technical communicators are the hidden gem we’ve been looking for.

Make Video an Essential Part of Design and Information Architecture

Presentation of a video channel of laptop. Light blue background with tall buildings of the city. Modern technologies for business. Flat design. Vector illustration

Presentation of a video channel on a laptop. Source: Getty Images

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Place videos above the fold (in the top part of the screen) and in a prominent spot so that viewers see them easily.
  3. 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 designMichael 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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-03 at 3.35.26 PM

Video Creative Brief by Angie Myers

 

 

The story of the broccoli recipe

While reading the Salvo and Rosinski “Information Design” chapter a note that was written by a previous borrower of the book stuck out to me, the note said “F***ING CREEPY” and was written next to a paragraph that describes the following scenario.

“Imagine that a father with children sent the request for “broccoli” into a search engine, and imagine how his results might be improved if the search engine recognized that he was, first of all, at a home computer; such recognition might adjust the parameters of the search. Add that he is searching from a computer located in the kitchen at 5pm, which the terminal knows  because all telephony connections are blocked between 6:30pm and 8:00pm by the user’s request. So the database search interface now restricts the search term “broccoli” to recipes that take an hour or less to prepare. The same search from the same place made on another day at 6:00pm would eliminate all the recipes that take longer than 30 minutes to prepare.” p. 123

broccoli.jpg

Image from https://www.thespruceeats.com/sauteed-broccoli-482862

I don’t think we are too far off from this scenario being real. Marketers know more and more about where we are, what we’re searching, buying, researching than ever before. As technology improves, there are more checks and balances being worked into systems to allow users to choose to block access to personal data. But this example illustrates the potential that search engines can, and often are, using information that is readily available (read: collected by the engine itself based on our habits) to provide more relevant search results for users.

Think of sponsored ads for a moment. When was the last time you were reading a news article or browsing the web and had an ad show up that was for a product you’ve been considering purchasing? Earlier I was browsing American Eagle for new fall sweaters. I ended up not purchasing anything, and left the web page. About an hour later I clicked on an article on CNN that was about young voter turnout. And sure enough, the advertisement on my screen was featuring the American Eagle items I had just previously looked at.

American Eagle

Image from CNN.

Because of my browsing history, the advertisers knew that I was looking at American Eagle, was interested in purchasing something, and ultimately didn’t. So I’m the perfect person to show their ad to. To test it, I had my friend pull up the same article to see if she got the same advertisement, she didn’t. Her advertisement was a DSW ad highlighting winter boots.

So is scenario of the broccoli recipe the future? If so, what role will technical communicators have in creating that online space? And how will this changing landscape redefine what a technical communicator is? As Salvo and Rosinski say, “Effective technical communication has never been simply about writing clearly, but rather, about effectively organizing written communication for future reference and application” (p. 123). As the technological world continues to grow how will all this information be managed and what check and balances will be put in place for users to restrict their machines from knowing all the information presented in the broccoli story?