Author Archives: bngeenen
Hi all –
Congrats on reaching the end of the semester! For my final paper I examined a website at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as compared to a website at University of Michigan. Both were Mechanical Engineering program sites. Below is my abstract.
Deciding where to go to college is a major investment in both time and money. University marketing is increasingly becoming more highly competitive. As the digital world becomes more prevalent, traditional marketing has taken somewhat of a backseat and online forums such as websites are becoming more heavily used to gather information. This paper shows a comparative evaluation between the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mechanical Engineering website and the University of Michigan Mechanical Engineering Website. It will evaluate the two websites using usability principles and identify opportunities and provide suggestions on how to improve the UW-Madison website.
It’s been a pleasure working with you this semester. Feel free to stay in touch via LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/brittneygeenen/
Have a wonderful holiday season!
Recruitment and Digital Audiences
Blakeslee in “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age,” describes technical communication as it interacts with user-centered design, or UX. As communicators, it’s ingrained in us to keep the audience as the forefront of creating any materials, both in writing and design, so that the audience engaging with the material can process it easier, quicker and more intuitively. However, with the shift to digital communication, specifically digital reading of documents, it’s critical that we re examine if the audience has changed. Blakeslee says, “The thinking here is that technology potentially makes our writing accessible to a much broader audience than before” (p. 201).
Anything published on the internet could essentially be accessed by any user with a computer. These users have different identifies, cultures, languages, preferences, etc. So how can documents, which are published online, be written with a specific audience in mind? Can they be written for a specific audience? What boundaries are in place to create these communities.
These questions from Blakeslee reminded me of recruitment materials I utilize at work. As a reminder, I work at UW-Madison in the Mechanical Engineering Department. There has recently been a major push to create new online and in-person accelerated Master of Science programs for our department.
We have a variety of target audiences for these programs, but one of the target audiences in international students. We partner with a number of schools in India and China and they are some of the student we aim to recruit into these programs. I don’t work directly with creating or distributing recruitment materials, but our graduation admissions office does and I am included in many of these meetings. In the early stages of discussing partnerships with schools and these programs, we knew immediately that we would have to adjust our materials to fit the international audience. Some of these adjustments included re-ordering information on the flier so international tuition rates are listed first and selling not only the program but the City of Madison and the State of Wisconsin as well. Whereas with resident students, they likely already know about the State of Wisconsin and City of Madison. Additionally, it was important to adjust the language so that it fit the skill level of the international students.
To test these materials, we started with developing personas, as Blakeslee discusses, but really found the most value out of interacting with readers. As Blakeslee says, “another valuable heuristic for learning about and understanding reader needs is interaction, especially with actual readers” (p.208). We at UW-Madison are lucky to have a number of international students who are from the universities in India and China that we are partnering with, so we have access to these students who are already on our campus. The design team developed the materials and then tested those materials in a session with volunteer students from these partner universities to watch how they read and understood the information. (Thank goddess for free pizza, it really brings the graduate students into a room!) By watching these students process the information and having a discussion with them it was easy to make changes to the document based on that specific audience.
It may sound like an ideal situation, and maybe it is, but it worked. We have had positive feedback from the materials we have sent to these universities and our enrollment numbers from students at those universities coming into our programs continues to grow. So yeah, it’s difficult to keep the audience in mind when publishing documents for the whole world to see, but in reality there are almost always going to be some type of restraints on the community of people you are targeting with messaging. For us, it was retraining the target audience to international mechanical engineering students who were possibly interested in a masters degree. Knowing those boundaries narrowed the audience, even though the information is published on a public facing website for the world to see.
While reading the Salvo and Rosinski “Information Design” chapter a note that was written by a previous borrower of the book stuck out to me, the note said “F***ING CREEPY” and was written next to a paragraph that describes the following scenario.
“Imagine that a father with children sent the request for “broccoli” into a search engine, and imagine how his results might be improved if the search engine recognized that he was, first of all, at a home computer; such recognition might adjust the parameters of the search. Add that he is searching from a computer located in the kitchen at 5pm, which the terminal knows because all telephony connections are blocked between 6:30pm and 8:00pm by the user’s request. So the database search interface now restricts the search term “broccoli” to recipes that take an hour or less to prepare. The same search from the same place made on another day at 6:00pm would eliminate all the recipes that take longer than 30 minutes to prepare.” p. 123
Image from https://www.thespruceeats.com/sauteed-broccoli-482862
I don’t think we are too far off from this scenario being real. Marketers know more and more about where we are, what we’re searching, buying, researching than ever before. As technology improves, there are more checks and balances being worked into systems to allow users to choose to block access to personal data. But this example illustrates the potential that search engines can, and often are, using information that is readily available (read: collected by the engine itself based on our habits) to provide more relevant search results for users.
Think of sponsored ads for a moment. When was the last time you were reading a news article or browsing the web and had an ad show up that was for a product you’ve been considering purchasing? Earlier I was browsing American Eagle for new fall sweaters. I ended up not purchasing anything, and left the web page. About an hour later I clicked on an article on CNN that was about young voter turnout. And sure enough, the advertisement on my screen was featuring the American Eagle items I had just previously looked at.
Image from CNN.
Because of my browsing history, the advertisers knew that I was looking at American Eagle, was interested in purchasing something, and ultimately didn’t. So I’m the perfect person to show their ad to. To test it, I had my friend pull up the same article to see if she got the same advertisement, she didn’t. Her advertisement was a DSW ad highlighting winter boots.
So is scenario of the broccoli recipe the future? If so, what role will technical communicators have in creating that online space? And how will this changing landscape redefine what a technical communicator is? As Salvo and Rosinski say, “Effective technical communication has never been simply about writing clearly, but rather, about effectively organizing written communication for future reference and application” (p. 123). As the technological world continues to grow how will all this information be managed and what check and balances will be put in place for users to restrict their machines from knowing all the information presented in the broccoli story?
Scott Kushner, in his article “Read Only: The persistence of lurking in Web 2.0,” discussed the idea that social media requires participation yet, in reality most social media users don’t participate. This non-participation online is referred to as lurking, which is that these people receive online communication but they are not contributing. This concept of non-participation reminded me of Rheingold’s discussion on “collective action” in the online world. Rheingold separates collective action into three categories: cooperation, coordination, and collaboration (p. 153).
Cooperation and Lurking
This idea of lurking from Kushner’s article I believe fits into the “cooperation” category of collective action that Rheingold discusses. Lurkers are social media participants, who use the applications and learn about what other people are doing, celebrating, and posting but who do not leave a trace that they have seen the content. Think of Facebook for a moment, on my account I have 1,000+ “friends” who I am connected with via the app. These friends are posting status updates throughout the week, yet when I am scrolling through the app I only engage with content from some of my closest friends, which is probably around 5% of the content I see on my feed. In this example, I am cooperating with the online world, but I an not coordinating or collaborating in it. This goes both ways, for example in the last status update I posted on Facebook I had 145 people engage with it, of my 1,080 friends that is only 13% of my connections.
Coordination and Collaboration
I think that Rheingold’s concept of coordination and collaboration in the online world play into each other a bit. Back to my Facebook example, coordination comes into play in various parts of the application but especially in the Events sections of the application. Facebook makes it easier than ever to coordinate an event with your friends. Every year over the holidays I host a Christmas Party in my hometown for all of my high school friends, and each year I organize this party through a Facebook event. I enter the description, invite all of my friends, enter in the time and location, and boom – the invitation is sent. From there, my friends are able to RSVP (yes, no, maybe) and comment on the event page. Each year, on the event page, the first post (from me) is a poll that reads: What day is everyone available? Day with the most votes will be the party date. My friends can vote on the poll for when they’re available, and I look a few days later to select the final date. This event tool is incredibly helpful is helping coordinate with my network. If there is a location change or time change, I update the event and all attendees are notified.
Photo from a Facebook event I hosted in 2016.
Although I think this example fits most strongly into the coordination bucket, I think there is Rheingold’s concept of collaboration at play too. Although it is limited to a small group of people, everyone is collaborating when they are completing the poll that is available in the group. As everyone participates in the poll, it becomes clear what day of the week works best for everyone and their collective answers help me make that decision.
Whether you’re lurking, cooperating, coordinator or collaborating online, you’re still participating. I haven’t run into a friend who doesn’t have a Facebook account where I need to go offline to talk to them about the Christmas Party, my friend group knows to expect this invitation as the holidays are approaching. I wonder if there will ever be a time where mass groups of people will stop tuning into social media; stop participating all together. If so, I hope there is another tool I can use to coordinate this event as easily as I currently do. So is this a from of collective action according to Rheingold, I would argue yes. In this particular example, there are very few individuals who are lurking as it’s encouraging group participation and most of the group is engaging with the event invite.
“Networks have structures, and structures influence the way individuals and networks behave.” – Rheingold, NetSmart pg192
Rheingold in NetSmart Chapter 5, Social Has a Shape, discusses what social networks look like. He says, “Imagine a circle with seven billion dots on it. Now draw just a few random connections between dots and other dots in other parts of the network, crossing to other parts of the circle instead of restricting the connections to immediate neighbors.” (p. 193). This idea of connections and what a social network looks like got me thinking about the six degrees of separation.
The six degrees of separation idea is essential that everyone in the world is only 6 degrees or steps away from knowing someone else. You can find a “friend of a friend” six times over and be connected to anyone else in the world, any one of the 7 billion people on our world today. (Yes, that means I am only six “friends of a friend” away from knowing Beyonce).
The connectedness is shrinking the world. No longer are the only people that we know physically located as our neighbors. We can stay in touch with people who move across the country, those people can introduce us to other people, and the world continues to shrink.
What does this connectedness mean for us? Think about it in terms of looking for a job. There are many people who get hired in their positions because of their specific skill set, but there are also many people who believe that it’s “who you know.” As these networks are growing, and the world is shrinking, and you’re only 6 degrees of separation away from any other person, it becomes very likely that you can leverage your connections to get a job interview.
When I was applying for jobs a few years ago I was applying to different positions around the UW-Madison campus. I had worked at UW for 2 years and was ready for a new challenge so started looking specifically only on campus. I was in my coworkers office one day, and he received a text saying “Do you know Brittney,” he replied with a photo of me sitting in his office. Turns out, the person who was hiring my position had worked with him at a previous job. My coworker had positive things to say about me, and had enough social capital with this other person he used to work with to get me an interview. Would I have gotten the interview without his recommendation? I don’t know. But it definitely didn’t hurt to have him connected to a network I was about to join.
When you get down to it, it seems overwhelming to try to visualize what a social network looks like. We all have a lot of Facebook friends and Instagram followers so identifying where all of those connections are can be difficult. But in this chapter, Rheingold does a great job of explaining the nuances of this shrinking world.
Blythe, Lauer, and Curran’s article “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World” is seeking to understand professionals who have graduated with a degree in professional and technical communication and understand what it means to be a “Professional and Technical Communicator” in today’s digital world given how the landscape of the disciple has changed. They highlight, for example, the fact that the job title “Social Media Manager” didn’t exist 10 years ago. In their results, participants were asked to rank the most comment and (separately rank) the most valued types of writing they do.
Image from Blythe, Lauer, and Curran’s article.
Beyond this, they also surveyed participants on what types of technologies they used to produce the texts.
Image from Blythe, Lauer, and Curran’s article.
These findings were particularly interesting to me as I’m finishing up my MSTPC program and working on completing my field project. For my field project, I’m examining the effects Slack (see image below) has on workplace communication. There is a team I am a part of that recently implemented the communication technology Slack into our workplace, and I will be examining how implementing this technology has impacted the team in terms of team dynamic, communication style, productivity and efficiency. The team I am examining consists of members from across generations, so part of my research has to do with generational communication and how technological literacy influences the adaptation of communication technologies like Slack.
I am still early in the stages of writing and will begin surveying team members soon, but in preparing for this research I found this study really relevant. Across the profession there are many different types of writing, and clearly different technologies used to produce each writing. In the team I am surveying for my research, we are all Communication Specialists in the UW-Madison College of Engineering, which means we fit into this group that Blythe, Lauer, and Curran studied. In the types of technologies used to produce texts portion of the study, Slack or any type of instant message technology wasn’t a technology that was included. The article is from 2014, so perhaps these types of technologies weren’t as common in the workplace as they are now, but it makes me wonder what the results would say today.
So I pose this question, have any of you used Slack in your workplace? If so, how has it affected your communication styles with your colleagues?
Mary Chayco’s book SuperConntected: The Internet, Digital Media, & Techno-Social Life dives into the 24/7 connectedness we have to others. We, as technology users, are connected to our social groups 24/7 regardless of physical location. As I was reading through Chapter 8, I kept bringing the content back to users on dating apps.
Screenshot of available dating apps for iPhone.
This connectedness and constant availability can hinder relationships as much as it can strengthen them. For a moment, consider the available dating apps: Tinder, Hinge, Bumble, League, etc. In these apps, users can open the app, connect with other users, and message the person virtually immediately as long as it’s a mutual connection. But when and how does the other person respond? If the person responds immediately they may come off desperate, however – as users who are essentially constantly available and connected, how long is appropriate to wait before responding? There’s are tons of articles on the internet offering advice to users on this subject, like this one from EliteDaily “How Long Should You Wait to Respond to a Message on A Dating App?” which says the key is to wait five minutes. Chayco says, “because the internet and digital media permit individuals to contact one another at a moment’s notice, people often expect to be able to reach one another and to make plans at any time. These rational expectations can be heightened when people want or need extra attention” (p.183). In the dating app scene, I believe it is true that these types of rational expectations are heightened. Users are expecting a timely reaction because of how connected we all are to our phones, but balancing those technological expectations with dating expectations can add some confusion in the mix.
Once users on these apps connect with a person, they can message the person through the app and make plans to meet up in real life. Chayco continues in this chapter to discuss the ease of making plans with technology, she calls it microcoordination (p. 184). Sure, technology like cell phones give users an easy way to make & change & adjust plans but, as Chayco says “it can also help contribute to a climate in which plans and schedules are generally seen as vague, indefinite, and perpetually incomplete” (p. 184). I listen to this podcast, “U Up?” which is a podcast about modern dating (p.s. It’s hilarious and I highly recommend it). In the podcast, Jared Freid and Jordana Abraham, the co-hosts, are regularly getting emails from listeners and discussing how to move dates from casual conversation on the apps to a real-life date. And they are always discussing how so many people are getting ghosted (see #2), getting dates canceled last minute, and generally having texting conversations about going on a date but never actually making the plans.
Image: U Up? Podcast Cover Photo
Weighing the readings this week against modern dating and dating apps, it seems that technology is making it easier than ever to meet people online, but harder than ever to actually make plans and follow through. Gone are the days of formal dates and grand gestures to win someone over. In today’s dating scene, dating apps seems to be the norm, where users are consistently connected to each other, but somehow this connectedness perhaps also hindering relationships.
Social media channels exist because users (individuals, companies, organizations, etc) continue to post, share, like, and interact with content. Each user is actively participating in sharing their photos, status updates, locations, likes and dislikes with the world, collectively creating content for others to consume. But at what cost?
Mary Chayco’s book SuperConnected: The Internet, Digital Media, & Techno-Social Life discusses this idea of crowdsourcing, “Because the sum of the contributions of a group so often exceeds the contribution that any one of few people could produce, crowdsourcing can yield astonishing innovation” (p. 73). Examples like GoFundMe, Wikipedia, and Kickstarter are great examples of crowdsourcing content and money for the collective benefit. With crowdsourcing, GoFundMe can raise money for a cause, Wikipedia had detailed content for users to consume, and Kickstarter backs new, innovative products for consumers. In these instances, groups are emerging and sharing in common goals. However, what happens when content is being crowdsourced for individual accounts?
Think about Instagram for a moment. Content is being published at an increasingly quick rate and users with large followings are aiming to publish “on trend” posts. I follow a lot of comedy accounts and many of these accounts have feeds that look like this (@beigecardigan).
Screenshot from the @beigecardigan Instagram account.
These accounts are sharing tweets or memes that other users created, published, and now this new account is getting the reward (the “likes”) for republishing it. The “credit” for the content is occasionally (but not always) included by keeping the Twitter username at the top of the post.
Who is being exploited? Who is benefiting? Does it benefit the person who originally created the content? Maybe they are getting additional traffic to their page, but what if they are not credited? This type of content curation is clearly benefiting the owner of the account who is sharing other people’s original content. There is no need to be original – there’s already a world of entertaining content available at our fingertips.
And it’s not just individual social media users. Companies like Buzzfeed do the same thing regularly. For example, this article 23 Posts That Prove Millennials Really Are The Worst Generation is a collection of tumblr posts and tweets from individuals who commented on why millennials are the worst. Buzzfeed does credit the person (but you couldn’t tell if you weren’t looking, see red circle below). In this case, Buzzfeed is absolutely the one benefitting from this user content. By using other individual’s original content, they create an article, drive audiences to it from their social channels, and in turn advertisers pay them to post ads on their website.
Screenshot from Buzzfeed’s article: https://www.buzzfeed.com/katangus/tumblr-tweets-millennials
So is this a problem? Or just part of the social media expectation? Chayco says, “Online attention can take the shape of a simple glance at a photo or a more active step: a like, a follow, a share, a comment. But attention is a two-way street. In exchange for accumulating likes and follows, it is generally expected that one will like and follow in return, though not necessarily an even one-to-one exchange” (p.76). Is this type of content sharing the clearly uneven one-to-one exchange Chayco discusses? Is having your original content shared in a Buzzfeed article enough of an acknowledgement to the user as it is a benefit to Buzzfeed?
Blogging for my work organization
I am an idea contributor to the UW-Madison Department of Mechanical Engineering blog as part of my full time duties in my current position. This blog is rebranded on our website as “Department News” highlighting stories about our faculty research contributions, student group successes, and alumni stories. It is entirely composed of articles, there are no videos, podcasts, or other forms of media listed.
The blog itself is separated into content categories of alumni, awards, educational innovation, faculty, in the media, newsnotes, perspective, research, student services, students, uncategorized, and Wisconsin Idea. Each article is tagged with one or many of these items based on what it relates to. Additionally, each article is tagged with the primary or affiliated departments (i.e. Mechanical Engineering and Industrial and Systems Engineering) for the specific topic.
I am not the primary contributor to this blog. We have a fully developed External Relations Team housed within the College of Engineering whose primary job is to find and tell these stories about the College of Engineering. My role comes in two-fold, 1) when the idea is just an idea and 2) when the newspiece is produced. I am a collector of information from faculty, students, and alumni and I share that information with our External Relations Team. I make sure that those individuals are informed of the story idea, the important contacts for getting the information, and any photography that might accompany the story. Once our External Relations Team produces the piece, I share the story on our Department of Mechanical Engineering Facebook page.
Sharing blogs to social channels
As mentioned, once a blog is created it is my responsibility to share the information to our Facebook channel. The article “What Blogging Has Become” by Robinson Meyer discusses the organization of old blogs in “reverse-chronological order” within a connecting set of topics. However, now with Twitter and Facebook there is a whole new tone to blogging. Meyers says, “They [Twitter and Facebook] made blogging easier, because a writer didn’t have to attract and maintain a consistent audience in the same way anymore… they were supposed to bring it’s attendant emancipation to the masses” (“What Blogging Has Become”). I totally agree with that. When I am posting the blog posts our team created to our social channels, I already know I have an engaged audience. The followers of my page have some interest already in what I am posting, and in turn are following these social posts to the blog page of our website. It seems clear at this moment, that Facebook is driving traffic to the website, not vice versa. It will be interesting to see how this is affected as the social media landscape continues to shift. As Meyer’s highlights in this article, the social channels organizations are using is one of the primary contributors to driving traffic to blogs today.
Beyond participating in my organization’s blog, I do not have any other online blog presence. I do occasionally visit blogs, primarily thanks to Pinterest, where I click on pins that typically lead me to a individual’s blog post who is sharing a recipe, fashion advice, or home decorating tips. Blogging is a much different art form than social media, where I am heavily present. Whereas some individuals dive into their blog, it is much more likely that peers will see me on social channels like Snapchat and Instagram.