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.


Image from Helpsocial.com

About Rebecca Snyder

I am a grad student at UW Stout, a mom to 2 sons (one grown, one almost grown), a homeschool mom, and a pearl girl @ Vantel Pearls. #gradschoolpearlgirl

Posted on November 10, 2018, in Digital, Literacy, Social Media, Technology, Video, Workplace and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Hi Rebecca,

    Recently, I have had a couple of experiences trying to contact large corporations for customer service issues. In general, my last two experiences are good examples of a belief I have had for while: if you are a customer of a company, contacting them is fairly simple, but if you are not a customer, it can be difficult.

    A couple of weeks ago, I received a packet in the mail from AT&T that said on the outside “new account information.” It was sent to a name I did not recognize but at my address. I live alone, so I decided to open the packet. Someone had ordered four new iPhones and opened mobile phone lines using my address. I tried calling AT&T immediately at the phone number provided. Of course, my call was answered by voice-recognition software that was not able to connect me without account information. I’m not a customer of AT&T, so I tried using the fraudulent account information in the packet, and that didn’t work. After a few attempts, I hung up and Googled for another phone number and called that. Finally, I got through to a human, but I was disconnected when the person tried to transfer me to the fraud department. Eventually, it was after 8pm, and AT&T was closed for the night. The next day, I called back, talked to a human, and AT&T blocked my address from being used again to create fraudulent accounts. It was ironic that it took me about 24 hours to get through to the right department of a multibillion-dollar communication company.

    This week, I ordered groceries for the first time through Amazon Prime. Chicago grocery stores are often out of stock of products I like, so I decided to try shopping online. It was easy to find what I wanted to order at decent prices, but shipping turned into a bit of a hassle. Amazon split up my order into three boxes. All three boxes arrived within a couple of days and were delivered by Uber drivers, but for some reason I began receiving emails stating that one of my boxes was lost and to contact Amazon. It wasn’t lost, so I thought I should let Amazon know, but I didn’t want to make a phone call about it. Instead, I clicked on a link in the email and it took me to the Amazon app on my phone. I used it to chat with a live person. I told her about the delivery of my boxes, and she took care of it.

    The lesson here is that technology works if you are a paying customer and have a tracking number regarding a recent purchase. If not, you end up frustrated, annoyed, and lost in a voice recognition maze.


    • Angie,

      Oh I know exactly the run-around of which you speak! I have been there, done that many times. Here is a fun one: My mom is elderly and always has me prepare and pay her taxes. This year, I did as I always do and paid via the IRS online website. She has the bank statement showing the debit as well as the receipt from the online site. In March, she received a letter from the IRS saying that they had not received payment for her 2017 taxes. There was no number to call where a live person actually existed. She was told, via letter, to write a letter including the aforementioned statement and receipt and they would take care of it if it was an oversight. She diligently got all of her items together, wrote back, and mailed it with tracking. A few weeks later, she received another letter saying, “sorry, we couldn’t find the payment, so you still owe it.” SERIOUSLY? It keeps telling her to appeal the decision in writing. We have been going in circles with the IRS for 9 months now over $500 in taxes that were paid in February! It is beyond maddening that there is no human to deal with, no number to call, and only months and months of back and forth in written letters.


      • That is crazy! You could try contacting your U.S. Rep or Senator at this point. They have staff who deal with issues like that and I bet they have the secret phone number to call!

  2. Your final image about expectations on the rise is great, and it’s hitting me during a teaching week when I feel my freshman are pushing the limits of my patience. As a college writing professor, I have expectations as well, and the simple mistakes being made or outright disregard of deadlines and class attendance have got me in a slump, so much so that I’m wondering if we are spending too much time on process and they actually would write better if I didn’t do conferences, work days, peer review, etc. But I wonder what their expectations were? Do they not want a teacher to review their writing before submitting it for a grade?

    Sorry for the digression, but I think your points about the web and social media and the speed/reach it provides led me here!

    I wonder if your final paper could explore searchable pdfs and other changes you’ve seen at your former company? That’s some great raw data that you could use our course readings to chronicle. I could also point you to a Field Project that examined a company’s change from WORD to HTML documentation that might apply. Let me know if you want to talk more!

    • Dr. Pignetti,

      My oldest son is a college sophomore who is in the Honors program and has a 3.98 GPA currently. He takes up to 18 hours each semester and even takes summer classes. My point being – he is a smart kid who cares about school. Right now, he is stressed beyond what he can handle, and today I called him to find him asleep during his Calculus 3 class in which he currently is carrying a “B” average. It isn’t that he doesn’t care, he just seems to be worn ragged and trying to get to the end.

      Recently, he called me upset because his Unix instructor had held his mid-term grade for three weeks. He was flustered and complaining because he didn’t have feedback and didn’t know where he stood in the class. He much prefers instant gratification. His Tech Physics professor grades his exams as the students turn them in and grades are posted the same day. I can sympathize there – I love feedback as well. Actually, I appreciated each and every bit of feedback I had as a young writer…but I have always loved to write. It seems so many young people have lost the love for the written word (well, the correctly written word) and find that text speak and voice clips are just too much easier. And, of course, freshman English comp is required of everyone so I am sure you have some who just want to get it over with and could care less whether their grade is an A or a D as long as they pass. I can only imagine how frustrating that could be. Freshmen, in particular, are an interesting group of young people. At any rate, I hope your semester ends with less frustration!

      The paper topic idea does seem like a good potential. I would love to chat more. Thank you!


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