Monthly Archives: November 2020

Building a digital strategy for cross-culture communication

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A strategy for digital communication comes down to three basic components: the information you want to communicate, the audience with whom you want to communicate, and the nature of the communication. This becomes more complex when communicating across cultural divides.

In most cases, the subject of the communication is already well-known to the communicator instigating the digital interaction. Perhaps the communicator is the expert on the matter. Or maybe the communicator is a novice knowledge-seeker. There are likely many cases when the communicator is somewhere in between–an informed knowledge-seeker.

As the initiator of a digital conversation, this individual (or group of individuals) has the power to make or break the interactive experience. This is why the other two components of a digital communication strategy deserve special attention.

Audience Analysis

A professional communicator probably has “audience analysis” etched in their brain. Audience analysis is a piece of the process that is as ubiquitous as it is imperative. Part of this analysis that Barry Thatcher discusses in his chapter in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication is the intricate study of cross-cultural communication. Thatcher identifies the many categories of cultural differences that could either enrich or impair the quality of the digital interaction.

There are no shortcuts to a good audience analysis, especially across cultures. However, if you’re also planning to perform a competitive analysis or literature review in addition to your audience analysis, it may serve you well to take note of how cultural natives communicate within their own culture as compared to how you communicate within your own culture.

Genre, Medium, and Constraints

The component of the digital communication strategy that I usually leave for last is the nature of the communication. Will this digital interaction take place in social media? A blog, a Slack channel, an online forum, a wiki page? Will there be a moderator? How long will the interactions last? Will anything be published? Developing a digital strategy might require the grit and cunning of a wedding planner.

When determining the nature of the communication, keep in mind your purpose, the knowledge you’re seeking, and the audience you’re inviting to the table. The benefit to leaving these decisions for last is that you won’t have to come back and change it if you later find out your audience is unfamiliar with your medium of choice or if they find an unmoderated forum too chaotic for their disposition.

Walt Whitman’s Twitter

“Writing has and is still becoming, more social, collaborative, and intertextual, and it both invites and enables the active participation of the audience” (Spilka, 215).

I found this to be true in my own line of work. If we are studying a particular author in class, I will often look for parody Twitter accounts, as they seem to amuse my students. (The Walt Whitman one is particularly entertaining.) Twitter is also a great way to connect students to the world outside of the classroom. During NaNoWriMo, many professional authors give writing tips for students who are working on creative projects. These tweets can be inspirational, and it’s nice for my students to see encouragement from successful storytellers.

“Writing has and is still becoming, more social, collaborative…”

Ferro and Zachry suggest that social networking sites are transitioning from being viewed as ‘‘productivity killers” to necessary tools in the digital workplace. The students in my Written Communication class just had an assignment where they practice their business letter writing skills by writing to an imaginary boss, supporting or disagreeing with the pretend company’s policy to police employees’ social media engagement during business hours. I bet they’ll be very interested to hear about this study! 

“Social media create a way for individuals to research the social context surrounding a given writing subject matter” (Pigg, 14).

I thought it would be interesting to conduct a study like Pigg’s for myself and my co-workers to see how often we employ social media tools in our lesson planning for our online school. Many of the teachers in our elementary school use Pinterest for lesson plan inspiration. If I tracked my screen display, how often would I notice myself moving between tabs as I graded and commented on student papers? How often do my students multi-task in this way when they are doing their homework? 

Three Pillars of Social Media Communication

This week, I heeded the cautions found in Chapter 8 of Digital Literacy for Technical Communication. I decided to think more deeply about whether my efforts were reaching who I had intended to reach. The reading offered that it was important to consider the context of use and the user expectations during the writing/ communication process.

In the beginning of a project creating forms, I decided to design what made sense to me. Three months in, I became aware of an end user who has no email and works away from the computer. Of the group of people who would use the documents, even one person caused our team to re-evaluate our strategy. We thought we had to decide either to continue to use all electronic documents, or revert back to all handwritten forms. The solution that ended up working best was to have someone transcribe the one user’s handwritten information to the electronic form.

What became clear to us was that the invention process does not only involve one designer or one department and a goal. The solution was created when a group of people generated ideas together and reimagined what is possible. In the workplace, this would be a call for meetings and collaboration between departments, but that is a small-scale example of social communication.

The reimagining of projects also extends to how they are communicated and disseminated digitally. A recent example I have paid attention to is the information design of the NIH to engage web users. As a national institute, their team seems to hope to communicate to as wide of an audience as often as possible. As a result, the social media page on the website links to hundreds of accounts for spreading all the research, news, and science that they work to produce. The goal is the spread of good information, especially now, given the current health crisis. In particular, the grant-funded efforts of the Community Engagement Alliance Against COVID-19 Disparities (CEAL) publishes social media resources. These ready-to-post Twitter and Facebook resources aim to make it easy to share and spread accurate news.

Both communication for the workplace and for society can benefit from the use of social networks. How social media impacts the invention process is described by Stacey Pigg (2014) in her conclusion:

“Social media facilitate activities that are deeply important to invention: accessing or creating networks of relationships, building and maintaining a presence that can interact with them, and then leveraging them toward future action.”

From Coordinating Constant Invention: Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work.

I reflected on the verbs of these three parts: accessing or creating, building and maintaining, and leveraging. These are tools for building any social communication effort.

First, accessing the social network would mean making sure that enough people are gathered or will be invited to view, participate, etc. Making a post public would be a step toward increasing that number as much as possible. When starting a new page, creating a network of followers who share something in common or are able to interact with each other also fosters the social media impact.

The second pillar, building and maintaining a presence, involves the strategy of when to post, what design elements will be recognizable in every post, and connecting with the audience. A weekly post that offers tips can appeal to networks who want to know when specifically to expect the content they want to make use of. Professionals in consulting and other disciplines also use these opportunities to establish brand images and messaging. They may offer a preview of their products and services or even giveaways to promote their business.

Finally, leveraging the connections would mean using the platform to promote messages and calls to action. For influencers, this is telling their army to consider donating to an organization or take part in a trend. In all cases of social media and professional communication, it is important to remember that our world is surrounded and fully immersed in these communication norms and styles. What this means for the communication professional is that knowledge of these and agility to move through them are now the top skills to navigate our digital world.

The Shared Nature of Teaching and TPC

Albert Einstein is credited as saying, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” The first time I heard this quote paraphrased I was being instructed to explain the concept in a way that even a six-year-old could understand. That idea has shaped the way I take any idea or skill in my curriculum and work to translate it into what my students will actually see and hear. For example, before I cover advanced punctuation issues in my students’ writing, I have to go back and review the parts of speech. Do I think (and maybe do you think) it’s a little ridiculous to be covering nouns and verbs in higher education? Sometimes I think that, yes. Does it change the fact that it makes a noticeable difference in whether or not students are able to grasp the other more “college-worthy” topics that we shift to within the same class period? Yes. It does. In the end, what I, a professional with nearing decades of experience in the content, think doesn’t trump what my audience (students) needs. If my objective is their learning; my product must meet them where they are. 

For teachers, it should go without saying that the audience determines how the required curriculum is communicated. I’d bet, though, that anyone reading could share stories of teachers who seemed unable to bridge the gap between their own content-area expertise and the lack thereof in their students. 

Technical writers have the same challenge. If they cannot access the needs of their audience, their products will fail. And, as much as a classroom is made of individual students with unique needs, those who engage with the technical products of TPC professionals have just as many idiosyncratic demands. Anne Blakeslee writes in “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age” (2010), chapter 8 in Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, “It is dangerous, especially in cyberspace writing, to presume that your writing will have a limited and well-defined audience” (p. 201). It might seem that teachers have the advantage over their technical communicator and writer peers here because they do work personally with their students, but what advantage they’ve ever had, if there was one, is disappearing in online classrooms.  Essentially, everyone has to find out “after the fact… and from other people that we failed in order to succeed later” (Blakeslee, 2010, p. 209). In both cases, these come in the form of personal complaints, online ratings, and failure to meet objective measures of success. 

Interestingly, it seems that the same procedures and practices to address this issue serve both professions. Blakeslee offers three pieces of information that writers [teachers] should seek out regarding their readers [students]: “How readers [students] will read and interact with their documents. How and in what contexts readers [students] will use their documents. What expectations readers [students] will bring to their digital documents” (p. 213). Whether we read these suggestions from the perspective of a technical writer crafting documents for the user of a new pressure cooker or a student in a math classroom, the deliverables crafted and shared in either case will be more successful for having the information listed above about their specific audiences.

The recent disruption to traditional education has accelerated the overlapping spaces like these between the professions of education and technical writing. These new digital spaces that have merged with and sometimes replaced our classrooms will never go away entirely. In “Technical Communication Unbound: Knowledge Work, Social Media, and Emergent Communication Practices,” Ferro and Zachry assert that, “extending the field’s longstanding concern for people and their informed engagement with the products and processes of technology, technical communicators have a role in ‘the new work processes’ wherein individuals are ‘cooperative and flexible’ with the ability ‘to act as an interface between new technology and human interaction’’’ (p. 18). As students of all ages learn to navigate various online learning management systems, work their webcams, blur their Zoom backgrounds, and still learn the assigned content, teachers are pulled in to support all those elements. Now, regardless of their subject, they are teaching their students how to engage in and build shared knowledge via technology. 

Dr. Stacy Pigg highlights similar ideas in “Coordinating Constant Invention: Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work,” writing “Writers must construct relational networks among people with shared interests and sense opportunities for future action and consider when and how to shift practices or discourse in response to them” (p. 70). If that’s not what a teacher is doing within their classroom, then I don’t know that it’s actually happening anywhere. 

Earlier, I alluded to the fact that most people have had more than one experience with a teacher who in some way failed to make their user/audience/student the center of their teaching, usually with frustrating/boring/disastrous results. Perhaps a clarification of teacher as professional communicator would be enough to improve those teachers and their classrooms. For those teachers struggling to find their new groove in this remote/hybrid/synchronous/asynchronous environment,  an acknowledgment of the very real, very professional and technical, and very valuable realities of their work could likewise help them find their teacher identity in these new responsibilities. 

In any event, regardless of the context and the content, the needs of the audience have to rule the priorities of the communication in both formally recognized professional and technical communication as well as in teaching. Maybe those professional communicators can learn from the attention good teachers have always paid to their students’ needs, and teachers can benefit from viewing their work through a TPC lens of supporting technology integration and modeling, as well as practicing, knowledge work.

Social Media in Techncial Communication Workflows

Technical Communication Unbound: Knowledge Work, Social Media, and Emergent Communicative Practices“ by Toni Ferro and Mark Zachry tap into a process that I routinely practice in my role as a technical communicator, but did not realize it until this piece. Social media has broadened social abilities as well as workplace opportunities. Social media has allowed audiences to be in contact with the technical communication in a much more widened way than before. Technical communicators realize this, as they continue to form communication using social media while also posting it through social media.

Personally, in my role as a technical writer in a standard writing department within a larger company, we have begun using social media to post manual updates or certain additions that affect the usability of products. I think this is interesting since it is breaking the traditional chain of the writer, to the manual, to the user. The dialogue between the information and the user is more fluid with the use of social media. This bolsters Ferro and Zachry’s point that “technical communicators who rely on social media to accomplish their goals in distributed organizations must now monitor the technological landscape and be ready to integrate emergent types of online services into their work” (2013, p. 8). We also use social media as a knowledge base to learn about the products we are creating help documentation for. About half of our projects are completely new to our company. This means there are no previous reference manuals or nameplates available for us to use as foundational points. Aside from meeting with subject-matter-experts to understand the product and the functionalities users need to know about, we use social media posts and marketing information on different platforms to understand the product. Looking at users interacting on social media about an upcoming product, or seeing how the company itself is posting about the product on social media, allows us to understand the context of the product.

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This thus enables the communication to better reflect the needs of the user. In this way, “Social media provide knowledge workers new avenues to find and leverage resources, enabling work that is increasingly important in the new economy such as developing and strengthening connections, finding and leveraging information, and participating in a professional community consisting of a vast and varied array of people and resources” (Ferro & Zachry, 2013, p. 9). As social media continues to act as the main avenue of communication in our society, technical communicators should use these platforms for their benefit. 

Addressing Audience Needs in a Digital World

One of the most critical aspects of technical communication is the ability to understand the audience. While the rise of digital media has created a more global audience, it is important to analyze the audience’s needs and tailor material accordingly. In Spilka’s book Digital Literacy for Technical Communication she states, “Technology facilitates this accommodation of documents by allowing writers to accommodate specific needs of distinct segments or members of their audience” (205). Especially in today’s digital world, it is becoming increasingly important to create documents that are broken up into different segments as we move into a fast-paced society. While a comprehensive overview may be more appropriate for certain situations, sifting through pages of material may create more work for the reader. It is also important to have a variety of format options, from web-based to print material.

One example of this from the technical writing department I work in is our comprehensive standard work guide, which documents our process for writing, editing, and publishing operator’s manuals, instruction sheets, service guides, setup guides, etc. While it may be a good resource for a technical writer to use as a quick reference or checklist, it may not be a good resource for a new hire who needs each task broken up into segments. We have a comprehensive guide available as a resourceful tool but have a folder full of single PDF files documenting instructions for specific tasks in a quick, easy format. Understanding the audience allows the creator to format content in a way that makes it easier for the user to complete the job based off their specific needs.

In addition to targeting situations to address audience needs, it is important to interact with the user. While in some cases this isn’t an option, it is important to obtain and respond to feedback. Spilka states, “Writers can use reader feedback both to enhance their understanding of readers and to improve documents” (211). As a technical writer, I don’t have many opportunities to receive feedback from the users directly. Instead I rely on surrounding departments and my own test evaluations to understand potential errors or confusion. This might mean working directly with platform managers, working in the model shop to test the process on my own, or performing out of the box installations using my own work instructions. There are also times when I have face-to-face interactions with dealers, who know our instructions sheets inside and out. Speaking with them directly allows me to understand their needs a little better, which may differ significantly from a novice user.

Finally, once the documents are improved upon and tailor to specific needs of the audience, there is a level of expectation that must be consistent across all platforms. Spilka states, “Writers need to understand the expectations their readers bring to texts, and then plan for and try to meet them – or, in some cases, consider ways to change them” (219).  When I see documents from years back, it is amazing to see how far we’ve come. As technology advances and we move toward a more digital platform, there will be a level of expectation to have the most up to date, flawless formats. There have been several occasions where certain documents have only been available in a print format, but internally, certain departments expect them to be online as a shareable file. Perhaps this will become the new normal as we move away from fixed, print documents.

Social Media and the Work Process

Stacey Pigg’s article, Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work, spoke predominantly within the context of a technical communicator, in which I do not have much foresight nor knowledge in. However, while reading through her study of writers at a coffee house, particularly Dave, I noticed some parallels between the process in which Dave uses in his line of work and my own experience within the art and design field. I found some striking similarities in the way Dave moved across several open tabs in quick and rapid succession as he worked on his writing and my own process as I bounce back and forth through dozens of open tabs and programs as I am working on my own designs. In my case it can get extremely unorganized and pretty chaotic as I swipe back and forth between tabs and programs. Maybe this is the drawback on working on such a small screen, or maybe I am just naturally chaotic in my workflow by nature.

The reason for the dozens of open tabs and programs that I would have is generally due to the process of my own design thinking. While the research phase of the design process is generally done before any designing even begins, I often hop back and forth between research and designing even after the heavy research phase. I find that additional research and inspiration even during the designing phase helps give insight towards what it is that I want to create or maybe steer me towards a different direction that I never even thought of. Depending on the nature of the design, I can often find myself using several different adobe programs as different tasks require one or more different uses of these programs. I often get lost in the sea of things I have on my screen just to design a simple book, bouncing back and forth between Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, Photoshop, and the dozens of tabs I have open on Google Chrome.

https://thedesignsquiggle.com/

My own uses of social media during this process can be either helpful or a crutch. In many cases, social media can serve as a distraction, keeping me from making effective progress. I find myself lost in the sea of information that may not necessarily relate to my current task at hand. However, social media can sometimes end up being of great use as in Dave’s case in the article. He seems as if he uses social media to inform him of his own writing process and guide him. It was interesting to read about another person’s own work process that uses social media in a positive way in their own work. This led me to really think about times when social media has actually been used to guide the course of my design process.

Thinking back on it now, I can remember times that social media was used to further my own understanding of design. Hopping back and forth between Facebook and my work does help a little bit with my own sanity as that little breathing room sometimes keeps me feeling refreshed (as long as I do not let it distract me). I also use Facebook to further my own research as I look up information a company or a person that I am using as inspiration. I often use Pinterest as a way to inspire new ideas and get my brain to keep on actively thinking about different design solutions. Hopping back and forth between Pinterest and Instagram can often lead me to new ideas or help me get out of designers block which happens quite a bit, and if there is something that I am unsure of how to create, YouTube is often the answer to that as there are hundreds of tutorial videos as well as a whole slew of information and inspiration just waiting to be discovered.

Stacy Pigg’s article helped me see social media in a new light when it comes to the work process. Instead of thinking of it as a setback, maybe looking at it in more of a positive light may be more beneficial to me. Of course I still need to tread carefully as it is so easy to get lost in that sea of information, but when using it as a tool, rather than a distraction, I can see how much more I can benefit from it in my own design process.

Work and Social Media’s Inevitable Partnership

In the earlier years of social media, it seemed that most organizations brushed it off as a more leisure/personal activity and kept it separate from professional work. Now, almost 20 years after its mainstream existence, social media and business activity have naturally come to a convergence, whether professionals wanted it to happen or not. One way where businesses utilize social media is through communication and networking. Stacey Pigg in her article explains, “Social media offer a means through which individuals can aggregate people and knowledge” (p. 70). Every business or organization has groups of workers and types of services associated with their company, which can all be represented on social media. Another way social media benefits companies can be through branding. Social media can help a company establish their brand and spread awareness of a company to a large audience.

Im a social media specialist by Minayek
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Knowing that social media can benefit a company, professionals more often now accept that using social media can be considered a “productive” work related activity. In Ferro and Zachary’s article, the authors examined what types of specific activities employees do when using social media at work. Among the activities, the top two were developing associations and learning about a topic (p. 18). For me, I would recognize this as true for some of my work tasks. I have to spend some time networking with other local organizations, researching about the organization, or finding out about certain events. Sometimes, some businesses don’t have a substantial website if they have one at all, and their social media page might be the best place to get a foot into the door (virtually) with the organization. While this applies to me and my work, this of course all depends on the role of the workers and the type of organization itself. For an employee who works exclusively on internal projects, there may actually be no use for social media at all.

Regardless, the merging of social media and professional businesses has created a great deal of new job descriptions. Roles such as social media specialist, marketing director, or other similar ones are quite common. These versions of the “knowledge workers,” mentioned by Ferro and Zach, who, “possess the ability to continuously build on his or her previous state of expertise” (p.8). These workers might spend more time studying new products, technologies, or services, and develop ways to communicate information about these to other people, sometimes hoping to “sell” the product. Similar to how companies take social media more seriously these days, education now places value in teaching social media / digital communication competencies to prepare students for potential work they might do that involves social media. Ferro and Zach explain that many youths today have actually developed their basic reading and writing skills through online media which poses the question, “how can we as technical communication instructors make these services which are familiar to our students strange?” (p. 19). This is certainly an interesting question and perhaps warrants some additional research. Personally, I think the most novel or “strange” experiences I have had were ones that involved cross-collaborations with other academic departments or community/outside members especially. For example, I took one grant writing class during my undergrad that had us work with people from non-profit organizations in the area and help develop a grant for their organization. Traditional writing was of course something that I had been doing all my life (not so much grant writing specifically), but having to work with an outside source made the experience feel much more novel, and the stakes seemed higher. This could probably be applied to social media communications. While different institutions obviously have different resources and opportunities, I think this would be one suggestion to the authors’ question, which probably has many other possible answers.

Ferro, T., & Zachry, M. (2013). Technical Communication Unbound: Knowledge Work, Social Media, and Emergent Communicative Practices. Technical Communication Quarterly, 23(1), 6-21.

Pigg, S. (2014). Coordinating Constant Invention: Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work. Technical Communication Quarterly, 23(2), 69-87.

When you have a Nail, Find a Hammer

“Social media now encompass many systems, are oriented toward myriad different ends, and can be creatively repurposed by individuals to realize unanticipated goals” (Technical Communication Unbound, Toni Ferro and Mark Zachry, 2013).

In previous blog posts, conversations, and critiques on social media use, I have often emphasized the necessity to use social media “mindfully”. Reflecting on this statement, I realize I was not using it purposefully and I had no real context or deeper meaning to what using social media “mindfully” really entailed. I suppose it sounded quite good and I had a vague idea of what the objective of mindful social media use was, but I could not clearly define precisely what mindful social media use looked like. I didn’t approach social media as a tool, as a mechanism to accomplish a goal.

I knew what it was not. Mindful social media use was not hours of unmediated scrolling. Mindful social media use was not adopting an unhealthy interest in what others were doing (FOMO) or internalizing unrealistic body images. But what is mindful social media use?

“Technical Communication Unbound” by Toni Ferro and Mark Zachry highlights how social media can be used effectively and healthily for technical communicators. It is all about building a community of shared interests and engaging a multifaceted audience using different platforms. Technical communicators who are passionate about their work have a unique avenue of dissemination and collaboration through the use of social media. It is about building meaningful networks that better engage communicators with their audiences and other professionals.

Ferro and Zachry mention the widespread nature of social media platforms. Systems that are proprietary and exist within one organization offer a method to connect to coworkers and possibly clients, but the reach stops there. Social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn offer broader opportunities for communication and collaboration (Ferro 2013). Communicators who take advantage of these opportunities by sharing the work they are passionate about, receiving feedback, and engaging with the content of other professionals can maximize their knowledge and ensure that they stay at the cutting edge of the field.

This indicates one manner in which communicators can use social media mindfully. The important element to determine mindfulness is to establish goals. Are you accomplishing your goals when engaging on social media? Are you growing your network of professionals and learning new information about your field? Or are you disengaged and disorganized in your approach to social media use? By establishing goals as communicators for our engagement with social media we can more appropriately understand mindful use. We need to know why we are using the tools we are using. If you reach for a hammer, you typically have a nail. So, if we reach for Facebook, do we know why? Why are we using that tool? These are important questions to pose to ourselves to maximize social media’s benefit.

This is essential for technical communicators because these platforms are becoming more and more integrated into our profession. As demonstrated by the Ferro article, most technical communicators are now engaging via social media platforms as part of their work week on a routine basis. This trend shows signs of continuing to increase as more platforms provide greater reach, better services, user friendly options, and greater integration of technology. For example, as an educator, I have begun routinely using Discord as part of my work week. Because communicators are in the business of disseminating information in the most effective manner, social media cannot be ignored on a professional level. Ferro writes, “Furthermore, technical communicators who rely on social media to accomplish their goals in distributed organizations must now monitor the technological landscape and be ready to integrate emergent types of online services into their work.” Social media continues to change, platforms adapt and include more effective and efficient technologies for accomplishing specific goals. As communicators, we are doing the field and our audiences a disservice if we disengage with these technologies.

The most effective manner to stay informed regarding the direction of emerging communication avenues is to engage with the technology routinely and mindfully. Mindful use of social media as a technical communicator entails establishing clear goals, such as collaborating with peers, creating broader networks, and connecting meaningfully with audiences. We can also mindfully use social media when we consider how the technologies can better our deliverables and how new technologies may shape the field.

While we can often easily identify what mindful use of social media is not, it can be more challenging to identify what it is. Trends evidenced by the Ferro article indicate that social media is becoming a more prevalent presence in our professional lives and is allowing us a unique opportunity to collaborate, communicate, and synthesize new ideas. This is a pivotal moment for communications; we need to decide how we will position ourselves as technologies continue to develop. By ensuring that we have intentional goals in our engagement, we can better orient ourselves towards a future of appropriate and meaningful social media use. When we need to pound a nail, we reach for a hammer. When approaching social media as a tool, what is it that we need to accomplish?

Tool Users
“Tool Users” by Kaptain Kobold is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Technical Communicator as User Experience Designer & Vice Versa

While going over the readings this week I was reintroduced to many user experience (UX) concepts from a technical communications perspective. In chapter 8 of Digital Literacy for Technical Communication Ann M. Blakeslee enforces the importance of researching and considering the audience when it comes to writing, and especially in the context of writing for digital. 

As she went over concepts and processes of understanding and researching audiences, I found most of them to be familiar with my studies in my UX Design class. I was delighted by the way that Blakeslee used the word audience and user interchangeably. This caused me to think of websites and apps in their entirety as the user experience.  

In a UX context, designers don’t spend too much time thinking about the content of a designed product, which is the actual communications. From what I’ve experienced a UX designer will only note the content of the product if it is strikingly poor. 

I’m currently working on a group UX project for campus wayfinding, and while doing evaluations of the existing system and competitive analyses we were shocked to see how often interactable maps would display information about locations in bulk paragraphs instead of a bullet list. I wondered how all the designers of these apps and websites could have missed a problem so simple to solve. My first guess is that they simply lack UX design experience, as it’s a pretty rare discipline only being around formally since around the 1990s. My other theory, for if perhaps the designers did have UX design experience, is that they failed to consider the content of their products as part of the whole experience.

In closing the chapter Blakeslee stresses the complexity of digital audiences and the importance of strategies for researching and understanding them and their needs. Blakeslee urging technical communicators to consider and implement these strategies makes me wonder if those of us working more on the design side of this could also learn a bit more about the user experience of the communications content of the products we’re asked to design for. I hope that as these user-experience oriented research and design/writing techniques are being used more across disciplines, it will better enable teams to come to solutions for users/readers faster and more eloquently. 

Addressing Literacy Discrepancies

Close-up of Medical Information Form

In Spilka’s book, Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, Ann Blakeslee uses Chapter 8 to deep dive into addressing audiences in a digital age. She begins the chapter by documenting a scenario in which a technical communicator conducted a usability test of a Web based application that assists individuals when selecting their health insurance. Blakeslee notes that this application was designed for users in one single location, as well as the potential for a technological proficiency gap among users (Spilka 2010). When reading this scenario, I couldn’t help but think of my line of work and the lengths we must go to ensure that the documents we are posting online are accessible and easy to understand. For my job specifically, age of the member (and sometimes location) plays an important part in the material we are posting. We need to be extra cautious of member materials for Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) programs where age is a factor; such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). According to the CMS TOOLKIT for Making Written Material Clear and Effective: Using a reader-centered approach to develop and test written material, those that are often enrolled in these programs (“CMS Audiences”) are “culturally, linguistically, and demographically diverse, and they include significant numbers of people with lower literacy skills”. 

However, while Chapter 8 in Spilka’s book revolves heavily on creating materials based on reader’s feedback, my position doesn’t allow us to speak directly to members. To assist us in our technical communications for these specific audiences, CMS has published online toolkits to aid in the creation of member materials that are part of CMS programs. These toolkits are focused on the reader and creating documents for them as “the target audience” and their ease of use. Blakeslee writes, “one of the main goals is to write and design documents with the target audience in mind, often with the aim of making their work easier”, and that is what these toolkits assist in doing (Spilka 2010). The CMS toolkits address their audiences’ needs, by encouraging those that are responsible for the design of materials to “focus on how your intended readers react to the material. It’s the readers who decide whether the material looks interesting, whether they feel it has been written for them, whether they care about what it says, whether they find it easy to understand, and whether it influences what they think, feel, or do.” This is what Blakeslee describes as “information writers need about their audiences” (Spilka 2010). Accessing and navigating a digital space among these audiences may may differ from other groups, so it’s imperative that we make these documents easy to locate as well as easy to understand. To make sure that documents are ready for member eyes, we have tools we use to test and make sure they are testing out at the correct level.  The Health Literacy Advisor™ tool is one we commonly use to assess and improve the readability of documents; as well as giving the document a Flesch-Kincaid grade based on the amount of syllables in each word (which contributes to difficulty of reading) and sentence, as well as the proper nouns. 

However, there isn’t consistency among materials and only certain clients require that the material tests out at a lower literacy level. Why is this? Materials are being distributed to members in multiple locations where digital and health literacy levels differ; but if only certain clients are requiring that materials test at a lower literacy level, there may be members who have difficulty comprehending the material in locations that don’t have this requirement. If these materials are being designed for CMS audiences, why aren’t they being designed at a lower literacy level across the board regardless of location or client to guarantee that all members understand the material? For example, last week I was tasked with designing a universal flyer to be posted online for multiple clients that is used to inform members of approved diabetic supplies based on their Medicare plan. When uploading to the client to get their approval, the Minnesota SB plans rejected it saying that the material needed to test at 7th grade reading level and it was currently at a college level. I ran into the same problem with North Carolina plans. However, clients such as New Jersey, Alabama, and Arkansas approved the same exact flyer as-is. Even sub divisions of North Carolina (EXH) and Minnesota SB (BCBS Minnesota) approved the college level flyer, while plans in the same division rejected it. I have to assume there is user feedback, assessed demographics and standardized guidelines on the backend that determine these decisions and requirements that I’m unaware of, but on the surface it seems like these literacy differences have the potential to cause confusion and harm among members. Blakeslee writes, “It is dangerous, especially in cyberspace writing, to presume that your writing will have a limited and well-defined audience”… or in this case an audience with a higher health literacy score. In a brief report titled, Discrepancy Between Patient Health Literacy Levels and Readability of Patient Education Materials from an Electronic Health Record, the authors found that 54.8% of the patients in their study were reading and comprehending medical documents at or below an 8th grade level. Some documents they were receiving were testing at 7th grade level, but, others were at a 9th grade or above. The authors of this study write that “Health care policymakers have stressed the importance of decreasing the discrepancy between the readability of patient education materials and the reading level at which many Americans function.” Their findings suggest that designing easy-to-read materials for a general population “may help maximize readability, comprehension, doctor-patient communication, patient satisfaction, and health outcomes”. Blakeslee writes, “Technology is a tool for addressing the varied need and skill levels in all readers” (Spilka 2010), and in this case I think that means addressing discrepancies in literacy levels to ensure everyone understands materials that impact their health and wellbeing.  

Spilka, R. (Ed.). (2010). Digital Literacy for Technical Communication. Routledge. 

Keeping up with Media

Keeping up with teen social media | Learning Potential
Image obtained from http://www.learningpotential.gov.au

While I was reading Spilka (2010), I was reminded of the course I took last semester, User-centered Research, a lot. I found that many parts from the UX and User-centered field overlap with this week’s reading pertaining to “emergent communicative practices” (Ferro & Zachry, 2014) and “social media’s role” (Pigg, 2014). Accordingly, I have once again realized that technical communicators need to understand the most popular contemporary communication method, social media’s role and that they also need to prepare for the change to the next emergent communicative method.  Above all this, communicators should analyze the type of their audience and the needs of their audience in accordance with the communicative environments where they interact with their audience.

As Spilka (2010) notes that due to the advent of digital technology and social media platforms, technical communicators need to re-define who their/our audience is and what product the audience uses or is interested in. I totally agree with this idea. As Krug (2014) mentions in his book, “Don’t Make Me Think!” I believe that there are “average users,” however, the standard of the “average” can change based on the communicative environment and method for the audience and communicators. In my perspective, for example, the audience these days can read content online very fast. They have been accustomed to the monitor environment, and they know how to skim in order to gain the information they need. They also don’t stay on the same page that long – I assume that it is because there are numerous contents they can/want to search on the web. Most importantly, the audience prefers the content with visual factors. They want eye-catching and graphic sources that can help them to better understand the content they engage in.

In conclusion, as Pigg (2014) presents, I as well believe that social media and digital content environments are deeply related to each other, unlike traditional communicative methods (p.70). Therefore, technical and professional communicators need to keep up with the change to emergent communicative methods and their audience’s needs in those new environments.

Like it or not, social media is here to stay

The common nexus between the three readings this week is the emerging role of social media in the work of technical communication.  There are implications of changing audiences, changing work roles and workflow.  Each article discusses an impact but all complement one another to describe the rapidly changing professional field of technical communication thanks to the infusion of social media in our lives.

Ann Blakeslee contributed toward a 2010 book for a chapter titled, “Addressing Audiences in the Digital Age,” and discussed social media’s impact on audiences as it permeates all the corners of our personal and public lives.  With the shift from traditional paper to digital documents and communication, Blakeslee first poses the question, do technical communicators need to adjust their view of an audience from selective and specific, to more generic and simpler?  The argument is given the reach of the internet, anyone could read your product.  Ostensibly though, Blakeslee quickly concludes that technical communicators have to continue to approach their audiences as “contextual, unique and particular.”  She finishes her discussion going over three well-established methods of understanding an audience: personas, interacting with readers and reader feedback.

Ferro and Zachry (2014) in their scholarly article, “Technical Communication Unbound: Knowledge Work, Social Media, and Emergent Communicative Practices,” discuss at length how the field of technical communication no longer operates “in a stable structure with set boundaries.”  Instead, technical communicators are engaged in knowledge work and have to continuously adapt to new tasks and technology.  Ferro and Zachry conclude that successful knowledge work includes understanding how social media is used, what information it can provide about audience(s), and how it can assist in collaboration.  I believe Ferro and Zachry agree with predictions from other scholars that social media will become “mission critical” tools in the workplace just like email and instant messaging.

Similarly Stacey Pigg discusses technical communicators’ principal roles of assembling and coordinating texts, technologies and expertise to produce products in her 2014 article, “Coordinating Constant Invention: Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work.”  Through this distributed approach to working, Pigg asserts that social media offers a new “means through which individuals can aggregate people and knowledge.”  As a result, this gives technical communicators a greater reach to others to collaborate and discover new information.

Given these discussions from peer-reviewed authors, as well as the obvious inculcation of social media into individuals’ lives and organizations, I agree that some forms of social media will likely become “mission critical” tools in the workplace like email.  There are two factors that I believe will go into which platforms become “mission critical.”  The first factor is the purpose of the platform.  By this I mean the nature of the content people post.  A social media personality I follow summarized each platform nicely in a recent video:

(Video will automatically start.. watch only until 7:40)

Just as Nick described in his quick analysis regarding Miami (FL) PD’s social media audiences, businesses will have to research their target audience and identify the platform(s) that would best deliver a specific type of content or reach specific individuals. The second factor will be how well the platform moderates content. While this is more of a public relations issue, if a medium is viewed as contentious or looses popularity, organizations and businesses will likely seek other social media.

Expanding into the Unknown.

 Flower Darby is a senior instructional designer and adjunct instructor at Northern Arizona University. Darby is also the author of the book Small Teaching Online: Apply Learning Science in Online Classes. I had just finished reading Darby’s book when I heard her interviewed on the Our College, Your Voices podcast. During the interview, Darby said something that stuck with me. Essentially, she explained, when transitioning our courses to online environments, we have tried to mimic the traditional classroom. When we look back at this moment in time, we will realize we had no idea what we were doing, and we did it all wrong. This concept resonated with the readings we engaged with this week because they discuss online delivery, untraditional workspaces, and publicly available online services. With so much rapid change, how do we know if we are doing it correctly?

    From the inception of the Covid-19 pandemic, there have seen shifts across almost all fields and workplaces. Unfortunately, most coffee shops have hidden all the furniture, so those coffeehouse writers featured in Pigg’s (2014) case study have probably gone elsewhere. Technical and professional communicators are a nomadic bunch, so where have we gone now? As Pigg explains, “the decentralization of organizations, the increasing movement of writing into informal locations, and the collaborative nature of writing continue to challenge the foundations of technical and professional communication” (p. 71). We are in a progressive time where not only are technical communicators displaced from their favorite writing spots, we have all been, in some way, displaced. The loss of our traditional workplaces also means the adoption of publicly available online services (PAOS.) Look at Zoom or Microsoft Teams, they have become the new workplace. Ferro and Zachry (2013) explored technical communicators’ use of PAOS and the reflection it has on TPC pedagogy. The author’s data drills it down to the understand PAOS are used to develop associations (62%), learning about a topic (60%), editing information (56%), and conversing with people (53%) (Ferro & Zachery, 2013, p. 16). Yet, in going back to Flower Darby’s concept of an established practice truly in its infancy, I postulate that is also reflective of the current TPC field. Now, certainly, I see how this may be a bold statement, but, I also recently read Saul Carliner. Carliner’s (2010) chapter, “Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century”, presents the radical changes the technical communication professional has gone through since the late 1970s. Technology was the driving force behind these changes; the same technology that is today expanding at a rate we have never before seen. Not only are we living through a tech boom, but we also just became a society forced to function through technology. Will the TPC field of today look the same five years from now? Honestly, probably not.

   Audience, as discussed heavily in my previous post, plays a major role in the TPC field. This week’s reading by Ann Blakeslee (2010) “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age” explores heuristics and strategies for addressing digital audiences. This, undoubtedly, is valuable information as we all push further into the technosocial landscape. Blakeslee (2010) states, “digital audience adaption, 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 the documentation” (p. 204). Ethnography is a practice used heavily in many fields but is particularly referenced in TPC user-experience literature. Social media engagement, certainly a major theme from this week yet to be addressed, employs a sort of modern, technical ethnography. Within social media lives communities and cultures from which, if studied, we can learn a great deal about users. There is a social media channel many of the instructors I work with use, I review it weekly to see just where they are struggling with technology. This same practice could be utilized in various social media channels to build heuristics and strategies for better addressing a particular audience.

     Although we may be, as Flower Darby projects of online teaching, still in our infancy, emerging strategies, PAOS, and social media channels are all aiding in technological betterment. We may not have completely discovered the best ways to utilize these resources. Instead, we may all be using them completely inaccurately. Regardless, our recent pivot into a digitally functional society could only help establish better heuristics for future engagement.

Building 2-Way Streets

From 2005 through 2015 I worked for a local communications company.  Even though it was a fun job where I made a lot of lifelong friends, I have no illusions about how our customers felt about our business.  Not great. Not great at all.    

One of the most valuable things I learned at that job came from a higher-up at an all-hands meeting.  We were in the middle of a major overhaul of our practices, hoping to improve metrics across the board.  He said bluntly: “It’s not about improving the relationship between us and the customer.  The truth is that our customers don’t want a relationship with us.  They want prompt service and no problems.”  I thought that was brilliant.  Aiming to leave the customers alone was honestly a much better goal than trying to improve the quality of visits to their home, and it worked for all of our customers equally.

Technical communicators are also tasked with creating content to appease their audience.  This goal, however, is much trickier.  The audience is not face-to-face.  They do not all have the same goals for the same products, let alone the same background and knowledge base. It’s impractical to attempt a one-size-fits-all solution.  Spilka, 2010, says that “technical communicators might assume that they need not – and even cannot – analyze, understand completely, or consider the audience much at all in their work” (201).  Optimistically, she argues “we can predict and define, with reasonable accuracy, particular types of readers for specific product and instructional documents” (201). 

The biggest hurdle is getting audiences to participate so that we can understand their goals and experiences.  I’ll be the first to admit that surveys go largely ignored in my house. Unless it’s the national census, I’m out.  I know I’m not alone here.  So, what’s the answer?  I read two interesting articles from Technical Communication Quarterly that expound on the efficacy of PAOS (publicly available online sources) in fostering participation for, and from, technical communicators.  When workplace filters and restrictions are not a barrier, “social media provide knowledge workers new avenues to find and leverage resources, enabling work that is increasingly important in the new economy such as developing and strengthening connections, finding and leveraging information, and participating in a professional community consisting of a vast and varied array of people and resources” (Ferro and Zachry, 2013, p.9).  Having reciprocal relationships between users rather than a one-way information share with a company makes for more contribution and more enthusiasm.  People want to build a relationship because it expands resources for all participants, even outside of work.  “Networked spaces are not only increasingly integrated into many individuals’ everyday habits, but also have become crucial interpersonal communication tools that span personal and work domains” (Pigg, 2014, p.70).          

Collective engagement for a better experience lies in knowing how and when to ask for input so that others are likely to reply.  Overkill, one-way relationships, and impersonal swaths of information don’t work as well as thoughtful, cooperative content that reflects who the reader and the audience are and makes them and their time feel valuable.   Perhaps compensation is a solution (the knowledge industry tells us that there are more currencies than money), so one’s time is tangibly appreciated?    

Technical Communication and Content Strategy

The role of a technical communicator is no easy task. In order to write documentation for products and services, technical communicators must determine the information necessary to suite the needs of the user. This involves a complex set of roles and responsibilities that flow into an organization’s strategic pipeline. In Spilka’s book, Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, she maps out these roles and responsibilities, demonstrating the various perspectives of content creation and management. Spilka states, “Machines and texts stand in for people when possible for a host of reasons, most having to do with improving efficiency and lowering costs, but also minimizing risk and inconvenience to people, and enhancing people’s capacities.” The role of a technical writer can be difficult to grasp, as priorities shift depending on CM perspectives, centers of interest, and enterprises.  

Looking at my own experience as a Technical Writer, I switch between these perspectives on a daily basis. For example, the foregrounds of interest change throughout the lifecycle of a project. The text-making or content creation process always begins with the user in mind. The content is then transferred over to other writers, designers, or platform managers to be dissected or edited using a markup system. The markup is then finalized with the approval of a manager or is sent back to be revised. The filtered system involves a social network of employees within the organization that work together to edit, evaluate, and produce material. The content may then be reused and distributed using various formats to suit the needs of the audience.

During the process of content creation, it is important to consider the role that culture plays into technical communication. Spilka explains that the relationship between cultures and activities is comparable to the game Apples to Apples, in that humans need to know how to make appropriate choices when confronted with a particular situation.

Spilka states, “From a cultural perspective, it is important to consider inclusion and exclusion, within this theoretical framework, by asking, “Whose goals, strategies, and ideologies are recorded? Whose are not recorded?” It is important for technical communicators to address these questions because it helps establish community rules. Community rules and guidelines help technical communicators understand the norm, allowing them to venture from it if necessary. By straying from the status quo, technical communicators can come up with new ways to address problems. In my line of work, I come across this when working in conjunction with the Industrial Design team. When testing different products and understanding the full scope of an audience, it helps to determine what needs to be included in the manual or excluded from the manual.

Reference:

Spilka, R. (Ed.). (2010). Digital Literacy for Technical Communication. Routledge. 

Digital Community

If there is one asset to pursue in life, it is community. Whether it’s in our personal or professional life, a sense of community is central to a stable, productive, and safe environment.

In a time when we’re all spending more time physically isolated, it has been difficult for many to participate in their communities to the degree they once had. Conferences, civil and religious meetings, and various social gatherings have been disrupted, as have the communities that attend them.

Communities have turned to social media and digital meeting spaces to carry the weight of the lost face-to-face interaction. It’s interesting to consider how much more difficult things would be in this pandemic if the framework for these digital spaces had not already been widely distributed.

For the past two decades, scholars have been touting the need to understand and embrace social media. (But I don’t think many of them had predicted how useful social media would be during a global pandemic.) This advanced preparation, albeit coincidental, has made it possible for us to experience community during a time of unplanned physical isolation.

Online communities do lack some of the benefits of face-to-face communities. The deeply-ingrained social meanings of a genuine smile and a firm handshake cannot be replicated on a digital display. We lose the sense of a shared experience without a shared physical environment. And we don’t always experience the escape from our own environment that often helps us redirect our focus.

But let’s not discount all of the advantages to connecting with communities online.

Global reach

Digital spaces are virtually border-free. Although language and access to technology create barriers to communication, online communities can be more diverse and reach further than any location-bound community.

Integrated collaboration

Social media and digital meeting spaces have built-in tools that allow members to easily share files and other resources to members. This enables productive and fulfilling knowledge-making experiences that are not often part of face-to-face meetings.

Cost efficient

This is pretty huge. Consider the cost of a mid-size conference. Add the cost of renting a conference space for 1,000 people. Add the cost of round-trip travel for each attendee. Add the cost of food and accommodations. Then add the hourly value of everyone’s time that is spent travelling. The total cost of this one community event is enormous. When we consider also the carbon footprint these meetings leave, we begin to wonder how much longer we’ll consider these events to be financial and environmentally sustainable.

We’re all looking forward to a time when we can feel safe enough to physically meet again in any community gathering. But I hope we never unlearn what we’ve learned about fostering the digital communities that are keeping us moving forward this year.

Collaboration for Social Change

Over the last few years, the last few months to be more specific, individuals have taken to social media to document, share, and bring awareness to situations of social injustice and civil unrest. As Longo states in her article, Using Social Media for Collective Knowledge-Making: Technical Communication Between the Global North and South, “Citizens using mobile ICTs to produce and communicate their stories of civil unrest are not technical communicators in a traditional sense, but they certainly participate in a technologically mediated communication environment” (2014). These communication environments that she speaks of are tools used for ‘sharing information and making knowledge’ used by people from all over the globe. Given the variety of users, when designing these platforms a humanistic approach must be taken. She goes on to write that, “we need to consider how we can build platforms for mutual contributions from not only professionals who officially design media and content but also media users whose lives are affected” (Longo 2014). An embrace of the collaboration between designers and users would mean that “the content would become richer, deeper, more useful, and would include multiple ownership or collaboration. A collaboration through social media, properly undertaken, results in the truest form of audience-centered content” (Longo 2014). Sometimes, however, these collaborations aren’t able to happen due to the masking of injustices. In the book, Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, Longo quotes Lyotard by writing, “Cultural silencing of injustices points to failure in uniting all people within a universal community. He asserts that the only way to construct a universal community is to deny local histories and culture” (Spilka 2010). While citizens are able to communicate their stories of civil unrest, and a collaboration between designers and users on the creation of communications platforms would be beneficial, how can technical communicators alone help to bring awareness to social injustices and marginalized individuals?  

https://www.wellandgood.com/white-normativity-in-language/

According to Natasha Jones, author of The Technical Communicator as Advocate: Integrating a Social Justice Approach in Technical Communication, “A critical approach to diversity and social justice helps to legitimize technical and professional communication (TPC) by providing scholars with a way to acknowledge the impact of communication as a way of mediating the human experience. Integrating a social justice perspective is necessary for interrogating how TPC can be complicit in reinforcing which perspectives and whose experiences are valued and legitimized” (2016). While previous communications were centered on efficiency and expediency rather than the human experience, technical communicators must implement ways “to critique, intervene, and create communicative practices and texts” that positively impact marginalized individuals and their experiences (Jones 2016). Technical Communicators can do this in a couple of ways, beginning with a ‘Decolonial Approach’. A Decolonial Approach centers around “taking apart the story, revealing underlying texts, and giving voice to things that are often known intuitively do[es] not help people to improve their current conditions” (Jones 2016). This approach, according to Jones, aims to remedy “colonial influences on perceptions of people, literacy, language, culture, and community and the relationship therein and support the coexistence of cultures, languages, literacies, memories, histories, places, and space—and encourage respectful and reciprocal dialogue between and across them” (2016). Bringing this full circle back to the importance of collaboration; another way that technical communicators can use their platform for social change is through participatory action research. This is an approach that “aims to encourage full collaboration among researchers and participants in the design of research studies and scholarly inquiry to improve, understand, and support social change” (Jones 2016). Through collaboration, technical communicators are able to partake in important conversations and encourage actions that promotes social change. In order for us to learn, grow, support social change, and design with marginalized groups in mind, we must be open to listening and having difficult conversations with those from different backgrounds and experiences. Jones ends by writing, “legitimizing the experiences and perspectives of others encourages researchers to explore other ways of learning, knowing, and communicating. Approaches like the ones mentioned open and encourage dialogue among various groups and stakeholders, priming a rhetorical space for critical reflection and action that supports advocacy goals and creates alliances with populations that have been traditionally marginalized” (2016). 

Jones, N. N. (2016). The Technical Communicator as Advocate. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 46(3), 342-361.

Longo, B. (2014). Using Social Media for Collective Knowledge-Making:Technical Communication Between the Global North and South. Technical Communication Quarterly, 23:1, 22-34. 

Spilka, R. (Ed.). (2010). Digital Literacy for Technical Communication. Routledge. 

Learning for the Future

I am a Course Assistant for Indiana University who supports distance learning students. Due to Covid-19, a significant portion of our courses have been shifted to remote learning. This has put remote learning under intense scrutiny. How can we do better? How can we maximize online learning potential? Which tools are even the most effective?

One course that I am assisting on is piloting the use of a popular social media platform as a host for much of, if not the majority of, the course’s content. There have been great successes and notable challenges. The platform has a significantly greater array of features than the standard Learning Management System (LMS), particularly with respect to communication and connectivity. However, there is not the same degree of dedicated course support on broader platforms. Students who are familiar with the platform also have a significant edge over those who are new to it and I observed a noteworthy degree of stress from students who were having to become acclimated to the platform, while already coping with the baseline stress of starting a new semester. There is also the challenge of where to place course materials. The degree of separation between the mandatory LMS and the social media platform does present some challenge regarding where information is to be found.

However, as we move forward into the digital age and these platforms are becoming significantly more prevalent, their tools more intuitive and innovative, and their userbase broader, educators would be doing their students a significant disservice by ignoring the potential learning opportunities.

The 2013 article “Using Social Media for Collective Knowledge-Making” by Bernadette Longo elaborates on this message. Longo writes, “Integrated university programs for transforming learning environments can tap into students’ rich experiences to help shape new ways of teaching and learning. We can also help students shape new, more professional ways of participating in social media. In the same ways that organizations cannot avoid using social media in their practices, teachers cannot avoid using social media in our classrooms.”

Longo posits the notion that communications programs and adjacent academics are uniquely poised to integrate these important tools meaningfully into curriculum. This is a necessity for Longo. Just as a chemistry student has labs and a nursing student has clinicals, it is absolutely essential that communications students be given the opportunity to engage with the tools that they will be using in their careers in a way that emphasizes principle and practice.

The principles of social media use can be emphasized via a discussion on the importance of social media in our communications sphere and how it has changed the manner in which individuals talk to one another, organizations, and how they orient themselves within society more broadly. Understanding the impact of social media on our communications trends will give students the ability to effectively engage with audiences via these platforms.

Practice, being equally as important as principle, seems more challenging to implement. No longer are we discussing the digital space, the realm of social media and content creation in theory. Now we are expecting for students to practically engage with these mediums. Blog writing, website design, eNewsletter writing, social media campaign creation, all of these practices and more can be integrated into a students’ instruction to emphasize the importance of social media use and provide practical experience.

However, with such a rapidly changing digital environment, how can educators effectively do this? What platforms should be used? Even five years ago Facebook would have been viewed as the gold standard of social media, but now Facebook shares the stage with many other platforms, some of which are overtaking Facebook, particularly in younger demographics. How can educators and curriculum hope to keep up with an atmosphere that changes so radically and so rapidly? How can our instruction, and specifically practical instruction, keep up when the platforms continually shift?

This, I believe, becomes a question that is more focused on observing trends rather than strictly understanding individual platforms. It is about students engaging in the digital space in some capacity, encouraging them to learn how to communicate digitally and interpret their successes and failures productively. While social media trends shift rapidly, communication standards are relatively static. Something that is viewed as vulgar, misleading, or harmful on Facebook is very likely to also be viewed negatively on other platforms. While the social media campaign strategies vary from platform to platform, many of the core communications principles remain the same: understand your audience, connect with your audience, use consistent methods of communication, implement digital design principles, etc.

It is more important to involve students in the digital space proactively than it is to specifically categorize how this is done. Students needs to have the opportunity to explore this space for themselves and observe trends, create content, and reflect.

As we move forward as a society, educators will be doing a disserve to students by not involving them in the digital space beyond their LMS. However, it is determining specifically how to best accomplish this in the fairest manner for all students that remains the question for future instructional design.

As I think about my students and their use of the social media platform for class, I consider what they are gaining from the exercise. They are gaining a whole new repertoire of communication experiences and social media skill. They are adapting and growing in a manner that is less restrictive and more in tune with what today’s work force expects. I hope that education continues in this innovative direction because I see a significant degree of potential both for students and the field.

Automotive Social Media Marketing
“Automotive Social Media Marketing” by socialautomotive is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Dancing in the Streets

Last night, November 7th, 2020, I ventured into downtown Kalamazoo to witness people celebrating the projected winner of the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden, and Vice President-elect Senator Kamala Harris. Local activists put together a Facebook event inviting citizens to the courthouse for an impromptu, socially-distanced dance party. My friend told me about the event, so she and my husband walked over to join the celebration. It was only the second time my husband had been downtown since the beginning of the pandemic.

A Biden supporter sprays Champagne along Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

This week’s Spilka reading focused on the role of technical writers and how they interact with communities. The reading discussed the potential technology has to “help citizens revitalize democracy” (Spilka, 151). The Arab Spring/Twitter Revolution of 2011 comes to mind: activists used Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to coordinate protests and broadcast them to the world.

Using social media isn’t a necessary component of social change in communities, though. Activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham recently stated on her Instagram: “Black media has been DOING THE WORK of educating OUR communities, cutting through mountains of disinformation that targeted us, and galvanized voters. A lot of the work was never done on Twitter, even tho folks act like this is the only space we can be seen.” As the Longo reading suggests, “we need to look at cultural assumptions underpinning the design of these tools and how we envision people using them.” Mainstream media does not seem to be aware of how Black communities work to organize and educate themselves. Major news networks assumed that if it wasn’t happening online, it wasn’t happening at all.

“We want to feel connected to other people” (Spilka, 156). If technology alone was a suitable replacement for in-person interaction, then people across the world wouldn’t be celebrating in the streets during a pandemic. Perhaps the most important takeaway from the readings and events of this week is, although technology can be an effective tool for organizing a community, it’s the people of that community that truly facilitate change.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/25/egypt-5-years-on-was-it-ever-a-social-media-revolution

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/nov/05/black-voters-wisconsin-joe-biden

https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/524962-fireworks-in-london-edinburgh-as-biden-win-celebrated-abroad

It’s Still Just Us Out There

I’ve had several experiences lately that have reminded me in very personal ways of the fundamental imperfection of individuals and of humanity, in general. When these imperfections show up in those I love, I strive to find them endearing or, if they show up in my children, to coach, model, or train them away. When the imperfections are impacting half of the nation, the struggle is a bit less within my circle of control or influence. On a good day, I do my best to find the beauty in our shared state of imperfection. Now, how I respond to the imperfections of humankind are really just coping mechanisms for my daily well being. Regardless of how it impacts me personally, the fact is that we project these flaws into and onto everything we touch. 

Reading Bernadette Longo’s chapter titled “Human and Machine Culture Where We Work” in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, I was again reminded of how, try as we might to evolve and transcend our past mistakes and faults, anything that comes from mankind will reflect and replicate both the strengths and weaknesses we already deal with. The context might change, but the essence remains. I had bought into the dream that the internet and digital spaces were ushering in a new, more inclusive and equitable age. While the persistent optimist within me still believes we might have a better chance of getting there thanks to those very spaces and tools, both our technology and the human race is still seesawing between good and evil. 

As Longo points out, “community formation relies on acts of inclusion and exclusion.” I’m going to risk assuming that we all learned that lesson shortly after entering school, maybe before. After all, our very families are an act of in- and exclusion. In any event, that first conscious recognition was maybe on the playground the first time a group of kids didn’t let you in. Maybe it was at the hands of an older sibling. Maybe it was when a few girls wore the same color shirt and you didn’t or there was a birthday party you weren’t invited to. The point is, we’re hard wired to want in, and we can only define “in” as the opposite state of those who are “out.” 

This carries into the machines we create: some have access to them; some don’t. It shows up in the spaces we inhabit online. It’s present in the branding of Apple and android. I’m not an i-person. I have my reasons, and I’m comfortable with that choice, but it still annoys me that when people send me texts from an iphone, they get chopped to pieces and arrive out of order. It feels like a constant over-the-shoulder laugh from the popular girls meant to remind me that I’m not “in.” 

Those are the easy-to-identify pieces. What about the behind-the-scenes business deals and censorship or highlighting of certain lines of thinking or cultural norms or implicit bias? How did the recent film version of Roald Dahl’s The Witches make it all the way to release before anyone thought to consider the witches’ hands as a message that disabilities and differences make you bad or scary? It’s because our very human imperfections pervade even the largest groups and the most expensive, advanced machines. We want to believe that we’ve stripped the messy parts of being human away from our machines, but they are still our machines and our online communities. Humanity might advance with our technology, but it will not advance because of it. That is, our virtual spaces will not cure the very real issues within the human race. That’s still our work to do both in person and online, in our families, social lives, and professions.  

Technical Communicators must be the expert … the extrovert … and an enabler.

Bernadette Longo’s article, “Using Social Media for Collective Knowledge-Making: Technical Communication Between Global North and South,” examined the role of technical communicators in their organization.  She went on to generalize that technical communicators must act as mediators and integrators of information and communication technologies (ICTs), as well as contribute to the construction of platforms specifically for its users.  She built her discussion from earlier communications scholar, Maggiani, who described the technical communicators’ roles in a social media world as being the expert … the extrovert … and an enabler.  All of these descriptions of a successful technical communicator in an evolving technological world led to me connecting them with two of William Hart-Davidison’s 2010 conclusions in “Digital Literacy for Technical Communication: 21st Century Theory and Practice.”  First, that information itself is a valuable commodity and second, that communication has become why [organizations] operatore.

Saint Mary’s University Entrance (https://www.commonapp.org/explore/saint-marys-university-minnesota)

Picking my way through these two discussions, I repeatedly flashed back to my time working at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota.  As the campus safety director overseeing nine full-time staff members, more than a dozen part-time staff members, and upwards of 50 student workers when school was in session, together we staffed the campus safety and information office on campus.  We were the only 24/7 department at the university, providing security and fire response operations, as well as serving as the go-to spot for any questions on campus.  These duties required the staff to be proficient in fire alarm systems, student handbook policies, daily events on campus and the basic responsibilities of each campus department.  All this added up to a lot of valuable information in order to provide a quick and positive experience for any student or visitor seeking our help.

Other duties include: monitoring fire alarms in buildings, making sure all the doors are activated and monitored, escorting people on campus, interacting with the SMU community, and completing various other office tasks.

Retired Officer: Sally Dotterwick in “Spotlight on Staff” – https://csi.smumn.edu/uncategorized/spotlight-on-staff-2/

We ended up developing this ironically as the university launched a new enterprise information system.  I understand these are very expensive endeavours, as it is used by the entire university.  From Admissions to Financial Aid, the implementation of the new university-wide information system was a disaster.  It was already outdated as it ran only on Internet Explorer (and Internet Explorer was no longer supported by Microsoft during this experience).  The enterprise system was also not set up for Campus Safety.  It did not provide a “mobile” view so users had to use a laptop or desktop computer.  It provided us the ability to seek vehicle permit information and some basic student information, but it did not provide any type of directory feature.  If a staff member needed to locate a student, Student Housing still used a different software that was not integrated into the new system or readily available to Campus Safety.  The enterprise system’s complications and lack of features led me to have to design a system with what was available to us.  In the end, it was the Google platform and our Campus Safety department iPhones.

While my role as a technical communicator began the first day expanding on the resources for staff to use to work effectively, our horrible experience with the new university-wide enterprise system was the final straw.  Since the university used Google as their email provider, we had the full platform at our fingertips.  Using Drive and Google Docs and Sheets, I was able to make a secure homepage for staff to use that had hyperlinks to all our emergency, staff and student information.  For example, all the fire alarm panel and water shut-off locations were available with a few clicks on the department iPhones staff carried.  Also available were information for vehicles on campus and contact information.  If a vehicle was parked in the fire lane, within a matter of minutes any staff member was able to identify the owner and then call or text them.  Staff members were also able to quickly identify dorm room owners using this setup.  Using a Google Form, I was also able to connect campus safety with other departments.  We checked the emergency call-boxes on campus bi-weekly.  Any issues were sent to IT using a Google Form.  When checking the elevators or finding lights out, staff was able to quickly submit information to the Maintenance department.  This was all possible standing next to the issue using an iPhone.

Putting this together was only part of the battle though.  The staff was so diverse, from technology-savvy student workers to professional staff nearing retirement that struggled using the iPhone.  The university utilized Blackboard at the time and I was able use it to provide 5-minute online trainings for staff on our various responsibilities.  All the topics referenced above and more: water shut-off valves so the fire suppression system doesn’t flood a dorm; logging into the secure homepage on the iPhone and the information available within seconds; responding to an elevator failure, and silencing door alarms or granting door access remotely.

What started as an endeavor to make information easier for staff members, ended up as a complete mobile system for staff to function and communicate on the fly.  Little did I know then that my role was more technical communicator in the modern age than a department manager.  In her article Longo concluded that technologies that mediate our communications and make them possible also strip much of the human context.  For a 24/7 problem-solving organization, our use of technology I think added human context.  It provided us the ability to reach information and communicate faster.

ICT User-Research: A Balancing Act

Bernadette Longo (2013) offers a case study looking at information and communication technologies (ICTs). In exploring the interaction humans have with these technologies, she provides insight into a potential limitation of technical communicators/teachers. This limitation is the limited ability to capture the effect of ICTs on all potential users. As users have also become content producers, the interaction becomes more complex than technical communicators may have been used to. The field’s response to an evolving human computer interaction becomes a critical piece to this discussion.

One area her study seemed to address was a look at the reach of technical communicator requests for direct feedback. While it is ideal to listen to all voices, when taking a sample of a population to interview, what perspectives could a technical communicator be missing? She offered a number of examples where a person with a different lived experience even caused her to change the question she felt she should ask about technology use. Access to technology, in particular, was a concern she raised as another level of what makes information and document design complex. If any people who are offering opinions on the design of a document would not have access to the technology in the first place, what should that mean for the designer? She does not specifically ask this question, but I thought about it with the person with no access likely being a “non-adopter” of the technology, while a person with access would be a “probable adopter” of the technology. Is the preference of a non-adopter as useful as one of a future end-user?

My take is yes, this perspective adds to the improvement of document design. No opinion should be counted out or disregarded. Moreover, counting those without access in document design supports their success and positive experience when technology is able to be delivered to that community. In addition to being good ethical practice, it is also good for improving user-research.

Besides access to technology, I also reflected on the conscious and subconscious effect of ICTs on people/users. Just as a person’s real-world experience informs who they are and what they want from technical communication, so too their online experiences have a lasting impact on their expectations as users. An example of a missing perspective could look like my own encounter seeing a homicide video posted on Facebook on Easter, 2017. Due to the safety issue this individual presented to the public, people began to repost the wall post, unfortunately including the video footage. It took two hours for Facebook to be aware of the offensive/violent content and take it down. I appreciate that law enforcement and the FBI could respond more quickly since it was posted, but the disturbing and fearful image of a random act of violence on the street was upsetting.

As a user with this experience, I am afraid when videos begin to play before I have a chance to read the headline or caption. The choice to engage is taken away, just as it was when the man committed and posted his crime on social media. I wish the play feature could still only be activated with a button, but I know the user experience is more seamless when the content auto-plays. Knowing how to weight the experiences users have with technology can be tricky: does the majority always win? Not that technical communicators should expect to design for every user’s every demand, but we can think of how else we can elicit user narratives that make our work better and more representative of the world.

Techncial Communicators Embracing Social Media

As technology and social media continue to grow our communication abilities and circles, technical communicators find themselves trying to put their skills to work in this new area of discourse as well. Just as “Using Social Media for Collective Knowledge-Making: Technical Communication Between the Global North and South” presents, in the past technical communicators had to work solely within print communication. Print communication is less dynamic; communicators usually can easily narrow down a target audience and who will eventually interact with the communication. However, with the onset of Web 2.0, deliverables are now able to be shared with multiple different audiences and naturally flow through the information cycle of social media. Likewise, for technical communicators to excel and take part in this changing landscape, the study “proposes that technical communicators [should] be attentive to the participatory nature of social media while not assuming that social media replace the dynamics of face-to-face human interaction” (Longo, p. 22, 2014). Technical communicators need to bridge the gap between more traditional forms of communicating versus more technological forms.

https://745techprofcomm.files.wordpress.com/2020/11/dbe75-two-way2bcommunication.png

Instead of creating a piece that is active in only one direction of communicating (creator to consumer), technical communicators should now lean into the ability of dual-direction communication. Social media and Web 2.0 has allowed audiences to have a voice back, pushing dialogue and knowledge to even further extents.

This process inevitably is involved in increased knowledge-making. For example, my personal job might seem extremely one-sided in communication. I create manuals for users. Most times, the only interaction the user has with my work is when they open the product, look to see how it operates, and then discard the manual. However, due to social media, this experience has been changing. Last week the company received a YouTube video from a user explaining how a specific manual could be improved, citing specific instructions that did not best explain a function. My department communicated with this user through social media and thus updated the manual accordingly. Social media allowed additional knowledge to be formed on the topic. As technical communicators, we were open to this experience of learning and interacting with the user in this way. I think overall, technical communications need to see the strengths of social media to influence their content while also using foundational methods of the discipline.

Contemporary Culture is Coupled to Computers

The readings this week had me really contemplating how much many people’s lives, both professional and personal, are tied to technology, namely computers and the internet. In Longo’s chapter, she goes into great detail how this has influenced culture, and writes, “I am arguing for a new understanding of our culture when we become profoundly coupled to machines that facilitate our communication and networking with other people” (p. 148). So much of culture is defined by how individuals communicate and interact with one another, thus we can’t ignore the presence and influence of technology when analyzing modern culture.

Her word choice of “coupled” reminded me of an incident that occurred at my workplace some time ago. One day, I walked into work on a Monday morning and started up my email to go through my usual Monday ritual of checking emails, only to find that the entire network of the building down, including the phone line. Furthermore, our IT expert was out of the office for the day. Since there was nothing I could really do for the day that didn’t involve using the internet (or even the local network), my supervisor basically gave me permission to leave and work from home for the day (which he was mostly against at that time). It was really a huge reminder that my work presently was very much “coupled to machines,” even though the core of that organization was human services. Now, with people working from home more often, there is an even greater dependency. People speculate at what life and society would be like without the presence of modern technology. It’s no surprise that the popularity of dystopian science fiction gained somewhat of a resurgence over the past few decades, right along the growth of the internet and with other topics like climate change.

When the internet goes down at work... : memes
https://i.redd.it/gxvac305gq531.png

Fiction aside, Longo comments on how in theory, human and machine communities (the internet, I presume), could be a tool to unify people, but in reality plays out almost oppositely in that , “Human + machine communities tend to be fragmented and localized” (p. 150). This can seen everywhere on the internet. Enter any social media site, and you can see arguments/disagreements everywhere on multiple topics. The biggest topic right now is of course the recent presidential election. It’s happened too often lately where I have groups of friends in one circle, but not everyone is on the same political platform. One person will make a remark or post that is rather antagonistic, and this results in a spiral of arguments, and seldom ends in an amicable resolution. This is not the most constructive way to communicate to people and to form communities. It only continues to “fragment” communities. Perhaps as technical communicators, our goals might be to find solutions to create better systems for people to communicate in. It is not an easy task, and I think requires a considerable group effort, but I believe it can be done.

Create Your Own Scale of Success

In Chapter 6 of Digital Literacy For Technical Communication Bernadette Longo dedicates a section to writing about modernism and its relationship to technoscience. She notes that even though early modernist goals of universal inclusion can be viewed as positive it is important to remember that there is the capacity for modernism to create negative outcomes as well. She goes on to explain that technoscience has worked clandestinely to the point that it has replaced these modernist ideals with ones that equate utility and economy as acceptance and value. 

These ideals are then exemplified by her recounting of the way the technical writing (which she argues, is a technoscientific tool that assigns value to knowledge)  was used by the Nazis in a memo addressing technological improvements to the vans that were being used for the killing of Jewish people and other “undesirables”. The memos writer used language in a way that concealed the processes and the people involved in the project. Longo describes this as a project of “language control” that negated human values and legitimated the utilitarian technoscientific rationale.

I am no stranger, coming from a design background to reminders of how the same tools one might use to bring people together and affect positive change can also be used by the enemy. Art and design have a long history with capital, government, and propaganda. Just this last week in my User Experience Design class we were going over the CARP (constrast, alignment, repetition, and proximity)  fundamentals of design again for review and when my professor offered an example for contrast she presented us with the below image. 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stimmzettel-Anschluss.jpg

The image is of a voting ballot from April 10th, 1938, reading “Do you agree with the reunification of Austria with the German Reich that was enacted on 13 March 1938, and do you vote for the party of our leader Adolf Hitler?” The large circle is labeled “Yes”, the smaller “No”.  Much the way technical writing is a tool for controlling the way a person receives the information they’re presented with so is design. The memo Longo referenced used language to assign value and meaning to efficiency while negating the value of human beings. The above ballot heavily implies that the “Da” option has far more value and meaning than the small, off-center “Nein”. Its off-centeredness is also of interest to me as it shows the designer of the ballot also used the design fundamental of alignment to the parties’ advantage. 

Despite how much a moral person will find these works deplorable for the evil that they have supported, they’re both highly successful. Success does not make something worthwhile or just. When writing and designing your intention comes first, and then the ability to which it meets that intention is what identifies it as a success or failure. 

More morally grey than Nazis is the closing paragraph of Chapter 6 of Digital Literacy For Technical Communication where Longo meditates over her writing a technical document for explaining medical equipment and techniques and what she’s communicating and who will receive those messages. She compares those who will be affected by the documents, patients, doctors, and a culture that will continue to uphold medical sciences that use a mechanical model of the human body instead of more preventive lifestyle-based methods of health risk management and prevention. She closes with the realization that technical writers have the power, through their words, to shape culture and be shaped by it. 

I add to her assessment that whenever someone creates something that there should be this level of thoughtfulness, down to the smallest level creation as a sentence you say to someone else in passing or a social media post. Before chasing the impulse to communicate and create, take a moment to ask what your intention is (what do you want out of what you’re doing?) and what possible interpretations form others you could anticipate. Ask what part of the culture your feeding and what you’re starving. Use these thoughts to consider what would make you say your creation was a success or not. 

Digital Community

When I am working on an assignment, or I am at work, the constant need to want to check my social media is always clawing in the back of my mind. No matter how focused I am in whatever I am doing, just having a computer in front of me with access to all my friends and family, to the world, and to what is happening every day, is such a huge temptation that has been echoed in Spilka’s book, Digital Literacy. We live in a culture that is now shaped by technology. We control it, and in some ways, it controls us. It is very appropriate that Spilka spoke about culture and community and how it relates to technology as culture and community is the very core of what defines us as a species. No matter what part of the world we may be from, we all have our own sets of values, traditions, and unique way of doing things. We have our own community to call our own. But with the digital age, community has slowly began crossing geographical barriers and into new territory.

There was a time when it seemed like computers and the internet were just on the rise, it hasn’t yet become this huge dominating force within our lives. I vividly remember American culture being a bit different. At the time, it seemed like discussions at school were about what we saw on T.V. or what fun stuff we did outside at the park or the Boys and Girls Club. It felt so different and almost dreamlike in comparison to the lives of my nieces and nephews today who have the whole world at their fingertips.

Culture is the way people relate to each other and how their values, beliefs, and assumptions are created through the people and objects in their lives (Spilka, 2010). In this particular context, the culture at the time hasn’t yet been tied to closely to technology in the same way it is today. As technology got sleeker, smaller, easier to use and easier to access, our culture began to take a shift. The rise of social media and smartphones has created a culture where being connected is not only the norm, but a must. This has led to hundreds of different kinds of communities forming online where people can find their own place. This is evident on social platforms such as Facebook where you can join your own groups or communities. I myself am part of several communities ranging from social justice groups, to comic book communities, to art and creative groups for people of Asian heritage.

It has become so ingrained into us with these kinds of easily accessible communities, that it is second nature. I can be working on a very important assignment into the late hours of the night and not even realize it when I have a new tab on my computer open to Facebook with a cute cat video playing. It does feel almost as if this need to check social media plays into more than just an addiction to technology, but possibly the psychological need for connection with other people who share your same values and beliefs. Just like in Anderson’s The Long Tail, people with niche interests are all separated across the country with geographical barriers, the internet offers people who long and crave for a community to suddenly be connected through a thin screen.

Audience Understood.

“The very nature of technical communication begs for conceptions of audience because technical writers are fundamentally charged with the responsibility of translating information from one context to another.”

– Robert R. Johnson, 1997, Audience Involved: Toward a Participatory Model of Writing

 Johnson’s (1997) quote seemed a fitting choice as I reflect on the author’s we engaged with this week. Technology, as detailed by Saul Carliner (2010), has gone through major evolutions subsequently impacting the careers of those in the technical communication field. Blythe, Lauer, and Curran’s (2014) study details just how deeply varied the skills of technical communicators have become in the workplace. This week, we see these themes reflected again in more specific areas of technical communication: social media, content management, and technology culture. Within each of these topics, there are benefits and hurdles for those in the technical communication field. Ultimately, technical communicators, to ensure effective knowledge transfer, must understand their audience.

       Social media, as it relates to the work of technical communicators, brings growth (Maggiani, 2009). Not only is this growth seen within the emerging communication mediums, but also with the audience reach. Longo (2014) writes, “once technical communicators started dealing with web documents, we began to consider our documents had an all-inclusive audience” (p. 24). The notion of a global audience, or writing for a global audiencehas been a trending topic in the technical communication field for some time now. It all circles back to better understanding the audience and ultimately user experience. Determining how people engage with an end product can take us back to Don Norman’s (2013) The Design of Everyday Things.

Within this user experience classic, Norman (2013) states, “the rapid rate of technology changes outpaces the advances of design” (p.8). This makes the day-by-day work for the technical communicator undeniably more challenging. Yet, a focus on the audience, the user, can aid in overcoming these technology-related communication pitfalls and narrowing in on a more effective communication strategy.

     Content management, as discussed by Hart-Davidson (2010) in “Content Management: Beyond Single-Sourcing”, play a major role in modern communication as well as social media communication. By becoming better content managers, technical communicators have been able to breakdown communication silos. Removing these silos creates “barriers to systematic reuse” allowing for collaboration on a two-way street (Hart-Davidson, 2010, p. 131). Communication can be distributed to an audience and the audience can accept it or reject it, either way offering reflections of the outcome. This again presents another way social media brings the growth that Maggiani (2009) had discussed while also aiding in understanding the audience. It allows technical communication to be as ever-evolving as the technology which supports it. As Hart-Davidson (2010) explains, “we must devise ways to listen carefully and move quickly to support the emerging needs of users by documenting new uses, supporting them with new features or services, and scaling-up capacity” (p. 141). Goals like these are best reached through an audience involved, a plea made by Johnson back in 1997. To utilize social media effectively while successfully managing content, technical communicators must be involved and engaged with their audience.

     Patricia Sullivan (2017) champions the practice of truly engaging with your audience. Sullivan (2017) will point to the practice of ethnography, or the study of individual peoples and cultures, to not only understand but empathize with an audience. Longo’s (2010) “Human+Machine Culture: Where We Work” starts by defining both culture and community. The comprehension of these terms is significant because they are not the same. To understand the culture does not automatically reflect in understanding the community. Technology adds another challenge to this as it fosters additional communities with varying cultures. Working for a company, for example, does not define the culture and community of each department within that company. To truly understand the various norms, we must appeal in some way, to Sullivan’s (2017) suggestion of ethnography. Social media provides us a window into various digital cultures and communities. By utilizing this viewpoint, we can better manage our content from creation to distribution. However, it all begins with first understanding our audience, so we can effectively use technological resources to make that knowledge transfer successful.

     As we have seen from many of the authors highlighted here, technology brings with it challenges for technical communicators. Yet, to achieve knowledge transfer, it is critical for technical communicators to first know their audience(s). This understanding will allow them to recognize the various cultures and communities that reside within their end-users. Furthermore, technical communicators are more able to successfully prepare content and manage the dispersal of this content to the right audience.

Coman (Computer + Human) Friends

As Longo (2014) mentions, “Technical communicators traditionally had authority to produce knowledge about technologies for users… but now… how can technical communicators use these new devices and the social media…?” (p.22) To answer this question, Spilka (201) presents “Content Management” and “Developing Content Strategy.” Both of them sound like really nice methods, but then my question here is “How can technical communicators manage content better and develop a timely content strategy?”

As I teach students from K1 to G12 as well as businessmen in the ESL environment, I hear many things from them related to their studying, interests, and work. Young male students talk about computer games they like, and they make examples out of those games in the class. Teenage students keep bringing up pop singing groups while business men like to talk about how a new project is going at work or what their plans are for the weekend or vacation. While I correct their grammatical mistakes or teach them new vocabulary and expressions, I also get plenty of information from what they know, and I, especially, feel very excited if the information is something I never knew or something I would never try to know if it were not for my students. In addition to the communication with my students in the classroom, I talk to them via email or virtual room such as a chatting space online. While chatting online, we have a conversation about our class and assignment. In the chatting space, students can ask questions anytime they want, and most of the time, my students are told to upload their homework in that cyber chatting space.

To some, it might be more likely to make sense if I say I might be letting my students say what they want to say in the class, however, I see all of the process as communication as well as a type of method for knowledge-making. When I gather some new information or knowledge from the communication with my students, I look up some of the information if I consider it important or relevant to my work or studying. Needless to mention, the communication helps me to build rapport with my students, and sometimes I make friends with my students especially when the students are grown-ups on top of collecting knowledge.

In conclusion, I found a very similar idea when Spilka (2010) quotes Longo: “… in a virtual environment, together we will form some kind of community and culture based on those relationships and communication” (p.147). After all, for the sake of relationships and knowledge-making, we – especially technical communicators – need to swiftly adapt to the digital culture that is computer-mediated and “comprised of human + machine (Spilka, 2010, p.147)” as it is said, “Inhabiting virtual worlds is another aspect of postmodern life” by Longo (Spilka, 2010, p.155).           

Video Conference. Woman At Home Chatting With Friends On Computer Screen,  Online Communication With Coworkers, Video Stock Vector - Illustration of  cyberspace, conversation: 194210126
Image from Dreamstime.com

The Power Of People

So, I’m in graduate school, right?  During an aspirin-and-an-antacid-every-two-hours election year.  Drawing conclusions from the readings and sharing them will my class cohort is especially tricky when my mind is overwhelmed with social issues.  This week’s response is tangential, but it’s where my mind took me.

Our readings this week are about content management, information distribution, and the differences between ‘real life’ technical communication jobs and online collaboration needed to do them well.  The authors both go beyond the job site, though.  They discuss what it means to form a society, a culture, and the norms that take root therein. This happens almost anywhere people gather (virtually or not). Two quotes stuck out to me and had me thinking about how information moves groups to act, which is as important at work as it is in society right now.  First, Spilka (2010) wrote “from a cultural perspective, the important question is this: Who gets to decide whose culture and knowledge will prevail, and whose will be silenced?  Determining whose culture and knowledge will prevail will lead to decisions about which group of people has the power to make things happen and to prevent other possible things from happening” (153).  Spilka opines that culture and community are fundamentally built upon the inclusion and exclusion of different groups just as much as they are physically built upon concrete.  Second, Longo (2013), though she’s speaking about technical communications careers specifically, also has a view about human relations: “as connected and open as we would like our work to be, we still rely on the relations we build with people in a physical world.  The reality is slightly disappointing in the sense that it is still very difficult to build bridges across our global contexts” (29). Longo says communities are stronger when people can interact face-to-face (or otherwise foster personal bonds).  Only communicating perfunctorily online does not suffice for optimal knowledge making.

Photo by Sides Imagery on Pexels.com

The most visible niche cultures we see today are protests.  People participating are, in Spilka’s terms, trying to prevail, which often means overriding or silencing the opposition.  Longo is right in this context that it takes more than an online movement to truly connect others with similar views and force change.  I thought specifically about the protests in Poland, which delayed the implementation of a law and may well alter their constitution.  Women came out in droves. The sheer numbers gave them the power to make things happen, forced the government to acknowledge them.  Opposition was all but silenced in the coverage of the protests.  The Guardian described the protests as a “backlash against patriarchal culture.”  Norms were established to maintain volume and longevity.  There was indeed a community born.

Ok, so I know protests are an extreme example of how culture, society, and norms are formed, but they’re definitely not altogether different.  Spilka’s view that it’s about who’s included and excluded equally was a succinct eye-opener for me.  Longo’s view that cohesion is more effective IRL is definitely viable in this example, even when groups like Anonymous are challenging those limitations. I know there will be a lot more protests in 2020, and where and how they organize will be interesting.  

The Digital Review

https://socialmediaweek.org/blog/2017/08/online-reviews-affect-sales/

Recently I attended a photography workshop for businesses, and one of the key take aways was, “Millennials love reviews”. Being a lifelong customer (and Millennial), this resonated with me as true. I not only am always reading and relying on reviews before purchasing products and services, but I am also leaving reviews as well. In the article, Why Are Customer Reviews So Important?, Jill Anderson writes that “Merely informing customers of the availability of a product or service is no longer adequate; customers are also craving knowledge from first-hand experiences.” Rachel Spilka describes the importance of reviews and first-hand experiences in the book, Digital Literacy for Technical Communication. She writes of Zuboff and Maxmin’s economic predictions in 2010 that someday, if not already, there will be a shift to a support economy where the economic value is geared towards individuals and their needs, rather than towards mass-produced products (Spilka 2010).  Zuboff and Maxmin relate the current system to the solar system; with the corporation at the center of the universe where price is the most important, and the customer way on the outer edge of the rotation (Spilka 2010). With an economic system that revolves around price, the importance of customer service is sacrificed. Spilka writes, “The level of service has deteriorated so far that customers take for granted that they will have an awful experience if they try to use customer support” (2010). Zuboff and Maxmin predict that in a new economy customers will be at the center of the universe, and “The customer’s happiness will be the true measure of value, not the dollars that can be earned from selling products. Around the customer will be a series of support individuals and alliances, changing and recombining as necessary to bring to customers the products and services they want. With improvements to the communication system, customers will no longer stand for the conditions of the previous model, but will insist on getting the goods and services they want” (Spilka 2010). To put it bluntly, “When customers can communicate instantly about products and services, rate them on online sites, publish and read blog reviews, and in general, use Web 2.0 technology to exchange information, they are not going to settle for mediocrity and maltreatment” (Spilka 2010). 

With the collaboration that Web 2.0 allows, businesses and customers are able to interact with each other through the digital review process to ensure that customers are the center of the businesses’ values. Jill Anderson, author of Why Are Customer Reviews So Important?, writes, “Reviews provide an opportunity for businesses and customers to build a relationship with one another. Through the written review, customers have the power to shape the success of companies who are willing to respond to and act upon customer demands and expectations.” In the article, How can digital literacy help you understand your customers?, Rebecca Sentance writes, “Understanding customers means knowing what motivates them, what questions they want to answer, what obstacles they are coming up against (which is critical for improving customer experience) and how their behaviours are changing and evolving.” Being a business focused on digital literacy allows for “more advanced data-gathering and processing methods, which can help them get to grips with customer needs and behaviours” (Sentance 2017). Businesses that are “digitally savvy” are able to better understand their increasingly digitally savvy consumers, allowing them to hone communications, enhance productivity, and meet fast-evolving consumer expectations (Sentance 2017). On the importance of digital literacy, Sentance ends the article by saying, “To be competitive and to be trusted, everyone in an organisation should be familiar with their customers’ experience.” User-Centered Design is a design method that utilizes digital literacy to keep consumers and their experience as the number one priority (Spilka 2010). Regarding the collaboration tools that Web 2.0 offers, Spilka writes, “organizations are now able to create products in a transparent mode so that “users can see progress and provide feedback throughout the process. Open-source projects use mailing lists, blogs, wikis, and other online collaboration tools to make an ongoing series of enacting initial changes, testing, enacting further changes, and so on” (2010). In order to keep consumers at the heart of what they do, product developers and organizations must implement design methods that keep users’ at the center, as well as understand and utilize the digital collaboration tools at hand to interact with and listen to those same consumers.  

Spilka, R. (Ed.). (2010). Digital Literacy for Technical Communication. Routledge. 

writers gonna write

Those who’ve become students of the writing craft have likely become so at the behest of their inner compulsion to tell all of the people all of the things all of the time.

A 2014 study found that we, the practitioners of professional and technical writing, don’t just write the spam emails and IKEA manuals, but also spend a significant amount of our time writing for websites and blogs. And it’s not just for work. Professional writers (perhaps unsurprisingly) also write in their personal time–including email and texting just as non-writers do, but also creative writing, such as blogs, poetry, and probably some apt political criticisms on reddit.

So how do writers write for leisure without it feeling like work?

Rachel Dodman wrote about how professional writing can infringe on your work-life balance. She says that her brain is always working on something to write and that it’s always analyzing the films and books she’s trying to enjoy in her leisure time. As a freelance writer, she sees this as an acceptable trade-off when balanced with the flexible work hours and ability to work from a coffee shop.

Write that down!

But not all professional writers are freelancers.

Redditor u/alanbowman reminded readers that “writing” is only 20% of a technical writer’s job. Much of the job is taken up in meetings and research. So when some writers write for leisure, it may be more of an escape from work life than it is for the “leisure” writers.

It seems that the separation of writing for work and writing for leisure is a matter of our state of mind. Here are a few tips on how to set some mental boundaries:

1. Establish your purpose

Before you start writing, think about why you are writing. If you’re writing for an income, make a mental note of it and get your mind in professional gear. If you’re writing for your personal life, set it in your mind that it’s relaxation time.

2. Set your goals

It’s easy enough to set goals for your professional writing–if you have any trouble, I’m sure your boss will happily set them for you! Your goals will likely fall into place according to your competing deadlines.

However, if you’re writing for leisure, you might need take some time to think about what you really want out of your writing time. Do you want to write a certain amount consistently so you can get a sense of accomplishment? Do you want to write some cathartic, stream-of-thought slam poetry to wash away the 9-to-5 oppression?

3. Measure your time spent and your spent time

Measure two things:

Measure the hours and minutes you spend writing for income and leisure. Compare the amounts and find a balance that seems right. If you’re taking care of step one and defining your purpose before you write, it’ll make this part much easier.

Measure the quality of your spent time. How much satisfaction do you get from achieving your writing goals, both for income and for leisure? If you’re not achieving your goals in either category, then you might consider a significant lifestyle change.

4. Change your environment

The best tip was saved for last.

Our environment has a huge effect on our mental functions. One struggle for those who work from home is feeling like they never leave work. Try to keep your work station dedicated to work and do your leisure writing on your couch, or Starbucks, or the beach, or at the park, or in your bed under the covers with a flashlight…or literally anywhere else other than where you do your work.

According to the same study mentioned at the top of this article, many writers use the same software for personal life as they do for their work life. Why not switch it up? Try a different platform for personal email. Maybe your creative writing could flourish in something other than MS Word?

Introducing Technology to Technical Communication

Advancement in technology has had a significant impact on the way technical communicators create and publish content. Carliner addresses two overarching trends regarding the integration of technology into technical communication. Carliner states, “The first trend is the increasing role of computers in the production process.” It’s difficult to comprehend the publishing process before computers. At my workplace, there are a few employees who have worked at the company for over 50 years. When asked about the publishing process, they recall the days when they had to manually markup reviews and create illustrations by hand – a painstaking process that could take days or weeks. Carliner states, “The second trend is the increasing move of content to online, from a time when organizations published nearly everything in print to now, when organizations publish nearly all content online.” As society has grown more connected, the way that content is shared and interpreted has evolved. Technical communication continues to shift form static content like print instructions and visual aids to interactive platforms like virtual and augmented reality.

In addition to the efficiency of integrating technology to technical communication, documents have become more versatile. Certain platforms allow the user to publish content on a variety of different platforms from a single source. Carliner states, “[FrameMaker’s] versatility eventually extended beyond printing; it could produce print and online versions of the same document.”  This platform is also versatile in the sense that it can contain multiple versions of a document from a single file. For example, FrameMaker contains a tool called conditional text, which allows the user to easily toggle between versions of a document to view, edit, or publish. At my workplace, our primary publishing platform is FrameMaker, and the conditional text tool allows us to toggle between brands from the same source. This allows the user to organize files, save space, and work more efficiently when tackling multiple projects.

Another critical shift in technical communication is globalization. Carliner states, “Globalization led to the need to translate documents, but also to localize content (that is, adjust terminology and examples to that they use local terms like the term “lift” instead of “elevator”).” It is important to properly reflect the terminology of the local language.  At my workplace, this becomes especially important in our safety sections. While “backing up” a zero-turn mower might make sense to a US market, it would not make sense to a UK market. In this case, “reversing” would be the preferred standard terminology. Other terms that require conditional text for the UK market include spilt vs. spilled, tyre vs. tire, and centre vs. center to name a few. While translators can help mitigate these errors, it is important to be aware of these potential risks when writing content for different markets.

Spilka, R. (2010). Digital Literacy for Technical Communication. New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

It’s fun to ask kids this question. It’s even still fun to ask my husband this question sometimes. He’s on his third or fourth career change (depending on whether a return to teaching after leaving it counts as a new career) before 40. When my kids feel stressed because they don’t know where they want to commit their professional lives before they enter high school, I laugh and tell them, “That’s ok. There’s a good chance your job doesn’t exist yet.”

Watterson, B. (n.d.). [Calvin and Hobbes comic]. imgur. https://imgur.com/gallery/KCtDob0

Technical writers might feel the same on any given day. As Saul Carliner proves in “Computers and Technical Communication” (2010), his contribution to Digital Literacy for Technical Communication: 21st Century Theory and Practice, both the audience, the content, and the expertise required of technical writers has evolved as quickly as technology and the digital world has. From first needing to write the manuals on how to use the technology and needing the technical skills more than the writing skills, to writing for highly skilled professionals, to creating content for the average person with no technical experience at all, to managing branding and social media, it seems that the skills students planning to pursue their careers in this field will be better served to be taught how to write, how to communicate, how to think critically, and how to keep learning because any specific content they are given on technology is bound to be outdated by the time they graduate.

As if technology wasn’t moving quickly enough on it’s own, this global pandemic arrives to disrupt that flow and accelerate things like eCommerce, online education, remote learning, entertainment, socializing, grocery shopping, and health care. The World Trade Organization’s “eCommerce, Trade, and the COVID-19 Pandemic Report,” “spurred by social distancing and stay-at-home requirements, e-commerce in services that
can be delivered electronically has flourished, with demand rising sharply.” In response, Under Armor recently announced it “plans to prioritize direct-to-consumer sales and exit 2,000 to 3,000 wholesale locations by 2022.” Facebook says it’s messaging app, as well as video chat usage is up by 50%.

It’s not just all-digital business, either, though. Grocery store curbside pickup and delivery has achieved a level of integration it would have taken years to achieve without the stay home orders and other pandemic-related changes to our everyday lives. This requires the quick development and then maintenance and continuing evolution of webpages and apps. It requires blogging and social media coverage to communicate and generate attention for a specific company’s services over another’s. It’s new customers, new buying and spending habits, new organizational priorities.

In “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World” (2014), Stuart Blythe, Claire Lauer, and Paul G. Curran, conclude that students in technical writing programs “should be exposed to situations in which they must choose the best channels for communication in a given situation, … be exposed to a wide range of technologies that will facilitate that process, … [and] be versatile with multiple media.” This seems sound. This is not a list of specific technologies or skills to be mastered. Instead it’s much bigger, more abstract, and infinitely more suited to the nonstop changes that are to be the technical writer’s only certainty.

Technical Writer by Day, PSA Creator by Night

The research study (2014) by Stuart Blythe, Claire Lauer, and Paul G. Curran gave a close look at the professional lives of technical and professional communication program alumni. I had seen this research in a previous course, but it struck me differently this time. Before, I focused on the types of writing technical communicators were reportedly doing: email, instructional manual, website, blog. These were the physical proof of a hard day’s work. When asked what kind of job I’d be looking for in the field, I would say I could write online help documents to help people use their smart devices.

This week, I looked back at my notes and saw that I had skipped over one of the charts. Table 3 on page 274 lists the purposes for the types of text written. In breaking down whether the writers completed projects for work or as part of a personal project, a number of categories only receive attention at work. I was surprised there was not more carryover except for blogs and emails.

This sample of writers did not find a high percentage of personal or public uses for infographics, instructions/procedures/manuals, and usability materials. At the time of this survey, these writers left companies and agencies in charge of the decision to spend the money and resources to produce these instructional documents. I can see how writers may have not seen a need to produce and design to the caliber of an infographic or user guide if they just had a few concepts or ideas to share. A well-structured blog did the job and an email is the fastest form.

Even though some types were deemed strictly workplace materials a few years back, it is worth a present-day look at the gap between the professional and public occasions of these text forms. Should writers produce them at a similar rate for their communities and networks as they do for workplace projects? If they are chosen as an effective communication tool in the professional world, why should they be ignored in favor of narrative blogs?

For example, would it not be great to scroll through a feed of infographics that educate the public on healthcare topics? The CDC website evolved to include infographics for every facet of life in response to the pandemic, including its most recent guidance for trick-or-treating. While that was likely accomplished in a writing department at work, technical writers could also do this work to spread other types of text to their non-professional network. I appreciate that resources likely already exist on the web, and may even have been generated by writers, but I think this could be a natural outlet for improving communication by those who know some best ways to do it.

As I thought about this informal PSA- role for technical writers, it is not without a few challenges. For example, the technical writer is not necessarily the subject matter expert. It may be more likely that an individual could spread inaccurate information if it is not revised and approved in the workplace. The reader may not trust the content posted at 9 p.m. by a user who does not explain credentials or authority for posting without a recognized agency. The other big problem could be engagement. While a bank publishes great content on financial wellness, many individuals do not want to tune into that topic enough to get a firm handle on it. Even though technology allows for improved communication possibilities, the only way these things take shape is when someone works to prove it is worth our time.

What Technical Communciation is Valued Most?


In general, I am always intrigued by the intersection of praxis and theory. The realm of technical communication has many facets, including themes discussed in academia and the workplace. Web 2.0 has broadened these facets even more. “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World,” written by Stuart Blythe, Claire Lauer, and Paul G. Curra studies how Technical Communicators are interacting with Web 2.0 within their professional careers. One part of the study that I found particularly interesting was how it compared the most valued communication versus the most common form of communication used. This comparison showcases what deliverables technical communicators are primarily working  on. It can also display how Web 2.0 has affected what we determine as valuable.

For example, the study ranks “Emails” and “Instructions/Manuals” as the top two primary forms of communication technical communicators routinely work on. This finding aligns with my experience as a Technical Writer as well. Most of my writing is spent on either emails or working on my project deliverables which are instructions and manuals. Web 2.0 has allowed emails to become second nature in a business structure. Almost every decision and discussion is conducted through emails. Furthermore, the recent work-from-home situation has acted as a catalyst for Web 2.0 to be even more integrated into our daily communication. Now, video meetings are interconnected into our email applications, further extending the true impact emails have in the workplace. 

https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Ftheborfskipress.com%2F2017%2F10%2F21%2Fissue-iii-continued%2F&psig=AOvVaw0ewTnxDH3DBslCKG238sYv&ust=1604367702461000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAIQjRxqFwoTCKiq88nd4uwCFQAAAAAdAAAAABBp

Now, touching on the most valued technical communication, “Emails” ranks before “Instructions/Manuals.” I find this intriguing since the manuals are the primary document that a user would see. I would guess that this deliverable then would be the most valued technical communication. Although it is still highly ranked on the list, coming in at number two, emails still beat it out as the most valued form of communication. I guess this could be that without the content divided upon in the emails, the manuals and instruction sheets would not materialize. Web 2.0 has truly created an interconnected workflow for technical communicators. 

Preparing Students for the Future

Part of my job is to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet, and a large part of that preparation is improving communication skills and collaboration skills. As Dicks states on page 68 of Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, “technical communicators must learn to work well on teams and with minimal supervision”. This quote echoes what we have been told by local business leaders when our school administration asks what top skills employers are seeking in employees. Their top answers are always communication skills, collaboration skills, and problem-solving skills.

I would like more information about resources I can use as an educator to help my students be aware of specific industry expectations. If a student is interested in selling agricultural equipment, for example, is it enough for me to coach them on public speaking skills? Or should I dig deeper into the Agricultural Industry? Can anyone recommend courses, websites, podcasts, etc. that would give me a place to start?

When the Standard is No Standard

This post contains excerpts from “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World” by Stuart Blythe, Claire Lauer, and Paul G. Curran (2014).

One of the first thought exercises I was charged with completing upon beginning the Technical and Professional Communication program was to define what “Technical and Professional Communication” actually meant. It was extraordinarily challenging to develop a definition that was specific enough to be useful but broad enough to encompass all of the areas of Technical and Professional Communication. What did a grant writer for an animal rescue have in common with an author of instruction manuals for aircraft maintenance? Communicators are essential to virtually every field and discipline. How could we create a singular and specific definition that appropriately acknowledged the vast reach of communications? We couldn’t and didn’t, and while acceptable and useful definitions have been proposed, one that adequately captures the reach of the field is yet elusive. This has become, more or less, accepted as part of the conversation. Context must be provided before more strict definitional constraints can be applied. Is the communicator part of the public or private sector? Who is their audience? What type of communications do they produce?

There is no one single standard for what constitutes a Technical and Professional Communicator. Their official job titles will vary, their roles will vary greater still, and their expertise and experience can be as diverse as the fields in which they work.

It can only stand to reason that if our roles as communicators are varied, so too are the tools we use. Stuart Blythe explores the trends of communicators with respect to the types of writing they produce, the types of writing they value, and the technologies they use to do so. Blythe writes in the article “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World”, “Overall, the number of different technologies used for composing is striking, indicating that no single technology can be called a “standard” tool” (2014). This is logical, as different roles and specializations will require the use of different technologies. Evidently, the tools used vary even within similar subcategories as Blythe writes, “no single technology dominates any one type of writing” (2014).

The reach and impact of communications has always been a ubiquitous presence in its education. We understand the extreme variance that can accompany our roles and academic programs have been tailored to acknowledge this. Attention is paid to broad concepts such as rhetoric, usability, and research principles while liberty is granted to the student in what they explore and how; allowing for students to study the communication arenas that spark their greatest interest. Academics has found a reasonable way through which to contend with a lack of a standardized definition for Technical and Professional Communication.

However, as we move ever further into the digital age, we are being confronted with a wider array of tools for accomplishing specific needs. This presents a new problem to academia. With rapidly developing technology with increased specificity, how can communications programs properly educate students with respect to its use? As Blythe comments, there is no standard tool; there is no single technology. There are not even three or four technologies dominating the communications arena, and the problem is only apt to grow as digitally driven innovation continues to shape our roles.

So, what now? How can communications professionals and students move forward in a world where, when they reach for their toolbox, they recognize the hammer but nothing else? That’s fine if the job is to hammer a nail, but what if it isn’t? How will we be able to discern the most appropriate tool for the task and feel confident enough to give it a try?

The answer, I believe, resides in an assessment and respect for the process. It relies on an understanding that the more complex document creation and delivery becomes, the more proactive we need to be in adapting to new technologies. Also, if we adequately understand the process, we can better match each step to the appropriate tool. Blythe supports this notion when he writes, “…technologies play different roles throughout the process of a document’s completion, from invention to delivery (including the multitude of channels that delivery now encompasses…). These results suggest that using pencil and paper, email, word processing, desktop publishing, presentation software, and social networking technology all have a place throughout the invention, collaboration, design, production, and delivery stages of a document” (2014).

Just as we need to be cognizant of the vast definition of Technical and Professional Communication, we need to be aware that the tools accompanying our work will be equally as vast. We need to be accepting of the notion that we will have to adapt to new technologies, and they should be integrated, when possible, into course content. However, moving forward as communicators, we will do ourselves, our clients, and our audiences a great service by staying at the forefront of innovative technologies.

The Great Leap Forward
“The Great Leap Forward” by caribb is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Technology and Graphic Design

While reading Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy For Technical Communication, I couldn’t help but make parallels between the evolution of technology and graphic design. While chapter one focused primarily on the relationship between type and evolving technology, this also indirectly relates to graphic design as well. Typography and graphic design go hand in hand, so I was extremely intrigued by this portion of the reading. I imagine, production tasks as far as type is involved must have been an extremely daunting and time-consuming task. Even just from what little I have learned about the technology that was created for the printing press in other courses such as History of Design, it sounded extremely difficult and convoluted to operate by today’s standards. As technology evolved, so did typography.

Before reading this chapter, I was unaware of just how difficult it was to type on a computer. I cannot even comprehend how people would be able to type without having a proper display screen for which you would be able to see every choice that you make. This also made me think more into other areas of graphic design before computers. I am so used to designing everything through my MacBook. With easy access to all of my adobe programs as well as all my files put into one easy to locate spot, designing has also been easy for me. I often forget that graphic design has been around a lot longer than the existence of computers. How were people able to create intricate posters? Maybe some form of printing press? This idea fascinates me. For this reason, the statement, “technology for preparing illustrations and graphics was not in commercial use; it was still being developed in research laboratories” brought me back to reality as I had to re-evaluate everything that I know about design of the modern age.

As computers finally reached a point where they were able to allow people to think about text, graphics and layout, it must have caused a huge cultural shift in how designers work, and design has changed and evolved over the decades. The Apple Macintosh seemed like it was the desktop best suited for design as its graphical user interface was preferred for the intent of publishing (Spilka, 2010). As an undergrad, I had always wondered why students were given different laptops. Most art and design students had MacBook’s while everyone else had an HP. It had never occurred to me that the user interface differences between the two had different advantages for different jobs that you would like to accomplish. As computers become more advanced, graphic design will continue to change and evolve. This means that the way designers think, and the way designers operate will be drastically different within the next few decades compared to today.

Graphic Design - Tech-Set Ltd - Designers and Typesetters

Whose Job is It Anyway?

In my introductory college English class, our professor had us do a research project where the final result was going to be a website instead of a paper. He stressed the importance that this kind of web publishing was going to have in our work lives, likely independent of the kind of field we entered. His emphasis went over most of the students’ heads(even my own if I’m being honest, I just had an easier time with the project because of my previous blogging experience), and they were frustrated with the project. I noticed many of them, because this was an introductory class, had never been asked to write in this way and were frustrated at having to learn another writing style in a relatively short time for what they assumed was just a whim from the professor. Since that class I’ve had to write for web content three times, once working for the school, for my professional website, and lastly for the website for our senior capstone game. 

I am not a communications major, but I think my previous English professor was correct in introducing that kind of writing to a swath of undergraduates. Reading through Professional and Technical Communications in a Web 2.0 World, and the first chunk of Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, I noted how both works emphasized the way that technical communications specialists are being asked in their work field to have more technical literacy, and be more knowledgeable in visual communications styles and software.  

What I’ve experienced as a design major, is that the same thing is happening on our end and our schooling is reflecting this. In John Moore William’s webflow blog article, 4 reasons designers should write, he mostly notes how writing can improve anyone’s communication skills, but also notes how in web-design designers often have to write their own copy unless they’re lucky enough that the studio has hired a copywriter. 

The way technical communicators are becoming amateur designers and designers are becoming amateur technical communicators is called upskilling, and it has anxiety-inducing implications for the job market. In a previous blog post I worried over Adobe Sensei “stealing my job”, and now I worry about communications majors “stealing my job”, but it occurs to me that I could just as simply apply for and land a job traditionally expected of someone with a communications degree. What’s happening isn’t that one major is finding a way to slip into the field of another, it’s more so that employers are stressing the need for multiple skills for flexible teams. Or, more concerningly, are simply hiring fewer people for the same amount of work. 

In the 2016 research paper, UPSKILLING: DO EMPLOYERS DEMAND GREATER SKILL WHEN WORKERS ARE PLENTIFUL?, Sassier Modestino et al. results implied that when there were more people seeking employment, the amount of skills employers required of those they hired went up significantly. Employers are asking more and more of their workers, in terms of job variance, and are hiring fewer people because of it. 

While having more workers trained in different skills can help out a team and facilitate faster production, I have to worry that not all those seeking work will see the benefits are employers ask more and more of applicants. 

Despite this, I keep in mind as Digital Literacy for Technical Communication’s 1st chapter reminded me, that jobs in the tech industry are still really new, and that jobs and job descriptions change over time because they’re made up to suit the current era they exist in. 

Jack of All Trades, Master of All

  The study detailed in Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World, by Blythe, Lauer, and Curran (2014) features the perfect quote to summarize technical communicators at this moment. It comes from an online comments forum where an individual, presumed to work in technical content management, notes of technical writing, “you must branch out and be a master of many skills and tools.” That’s right, a master, not just someone who can dabble, but a sophisticated, knowledgeable user. What Blythe, Lauer, and Curran (2014) ultimately find from their study is those working in the technical and professional communication (TPC) field utilize a wide range of writing styles, audiences, and technology to accomplish their role. Coincidently, Rachel Spilka’s (2010) book Digital Literacy for Technical Communication reflects and discusses the impacts technology has had on the technical communicator. Saul Carliner‘s “Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century” presents the radical changes the technical communication professional has gone through since the late 1970s. The changes have all directly been impacted by technological evolution. Carliner will conclude that in today’s workplace, the challenge technical communicators face is ultimately being outsources. Content development needs are dwindling, but this, from my experience which I will later discuss, is due to the vast amount of technology now required in the workplace. Technical communicators simply cannot know it all, but, we are almost required for job security purposes. As Blythe et. al. (2014) found, gone are the days of specialized skills, replaced instead by the Swiss army knife approach. One unit, or person, that does everything. R. Stanley Dicks will also expand on this in his chapter “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work”. Dicks (2014) states in his opening sentence, “With the rapid and intense increase in digital literacy, technical communication is, by many accounts, in the midst of a seismic shift” (p. 51). Economics, management, and methodologies, as they affect management theory, have aided in the shift. From web techniques like single-sourcing, so productivity management, such as scrum, Dicks discusses emerging norms altering the workplace landscape. Ultimately, Dicks will lean on education as a solution for assisting in the ever-evolving responsibilities of the technical communicator. Education is important and plays a critical role in preparing individuals for the field. What I would like to emphasize in the second part of my post, a professional reflection, is the extent of continuous education required once practicing as a technical communicator.

 Professionally, I deal with a wide range of requirements working in a technologist role. It is not enough to understand the basics of any programs, we’re expected to know everything. From novice to expert, my knowledge must be able to run the gamut to effectively perform my job. I must know the learning management system (LMS) our campus uses inside and out. Additionally, I must understand all of the extensions that go into using the LMS. As Covid-19 has shifted our classrooms into more virtual spaces, I must also understand the virtual conferencing applications we use. Video is also in high demand right now and so I often find myself training on video editing, embedding, and linking. Just this week, I offered two trainings on a new accessibility tool. Additionally, I developed documents aiding instructors in understanding FERPA requirements that relate to their classroom. So in a given week, I may assist instructors with troubleshooting their online courses, write manuals supporting tools, edit videos, train on accessibility, and FERPA, all while answering calls and emails about other niche technology issues. I can’t count out all the other ad hoc issues thrown my way on a given day. Now, don’t let my reflection fool you into thinking I’m complaining. I absolutely love what I do. Learning new technology is one of my favorite activities, so I’m overjoyed to learn more. What I’m trying to showcase is how broad and varied my day-to-day, even hour-to-hour can be working in technology. I certainly have my specialties on the team. I am the designer of the group. So if instructors have design issues related to their course, both with instructional design or graphic design, they also come to me. Yes, I am literally a human one-stop-shop with technology software, applications, and tools. Which is both amazing and also a tad bit daunting. On top of this, my team and I are always looking to the future, from Technology Trends for 2021 to upcoming Learning Trends. Let’s add a cherry on top of this giant sundae as we’re also busy keeping up with the ever-changing offerings of the programs we currently use. Microsoft Teams is a great example of this. Here is what was new in Teams for September and here is what was new in October. Next week, I’ll have another new release coming of features and upgrades to familiarize myself with before my clients encounter them. Our readings this week, certainly shed light on how much the TPC field has grown with technology. The benefit of how comfortable most people are with technology is also the challenge. Our clients are engaging deeper into tech which leads to more programs and software use. It also leads to more training and more ways to ensure the options their choosing ultimately meets the needs of the end-users. Accessibility is always a major concern in my world and so not only must my client be trained on using the tool, they must understand how to navigate that tool for end-users with disabilities. The TPC field is so multifaceted requiring continuous training and educational growth. As the title of this article states, we are expected to function as a Jack of all trades, master of all.