Author Archives: jessryter
I spent the semester reading, discussing, and connecting those readings and discussions to my current technical communication role. My goal in this program is to become a better technical communicator, and this class has been an excellent start for me. All of our readings and discussions have helped me to think about what communication strategies I am already using and what new methods I can try.
I found the Spilka text especially helpful and relevant, as it framed the evolution of and current trends in the technical communication field within the context of traditional technical communication roles and responsibilities. As I am new to the field, all of this background really helped to orient me and help me understand how my job role became what it is today. In my final paper, I traced three themes through the different authors in the Spilka text and applied them to my own role as a technical communicator.
It was extremely helpful and interesting to read all of your creative blog posts and insightful comments on my posts throughout the semester. Thank you all for creating a helpful and supportive discussion environment. Best wishes for a happy and healthy holiday season and a great new year! The abstract for my paper is below.
The emergence of digital technology has had a profound impact on the field of technical communication and its actors. This paper explores changes in the field of technical communication and in the roles of technical communicators, evolution of the technical communication audience, and Information Design and Content Management Principles. My intent with this exploration is to establish where my current technical communication strategies are consistent with the field literature and theory and identify areas upon which I can improve and new methods that I can utilize.
This week’s readings deal with privacy, trust, and ethics in the digital world. The Schofield and Joinson piece, “Privacy, Trust, and Disclosure Online,” and the Katz and Rhodes piece in Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, “Beyond Ethical Frames of Technical Relations,” really approach the same question from different directions. What does it take to gain user trust and maintain integrity in an increasingly digital world?
Schofield and Joinson (2008) argue that privacy and trust “interact in determining online behavior” (p. 24). They discuss multiple dimensions of both privacy and trust, and they suggest that users often rely on some combination of these components of privacy and trust to guide their purchasing decisions and online behavior.
As digital communities grow, members look for ways to verify that other members are who they say they are. Schofield and Joinson (2008) point out that there are many ways to build trust online such as use of profiles, photographs, media switching, and linguistic cues (p. 21). Individuals use these tactics to build trust among other individuals, but how do companies gain the trust of their customers? The below comic strip is a good example of how companies do not gain customer trust:
Schofield and Joinson suggest that assuring customers that the information they disclose and the transactions they conduct will be dealt with appropriately and competently is an important building block for user trust. Also important is the company’s reputation; if people believe that they can trust a name, this belief can be more influential on purchasing behavior than trust building techniques such as privacy seals and statements.
While conducting business online might require disclosure of more personal information than it does in person, it also offers benefits such as “personalized service, convenience, improved efficiency” (p. 17). As online business continues to grow, this is evidently an acceptable tradeoff to many users. I know that when I am faced with the choice of going on a retail hunt for vacuum cleaner bags in the rain or giving Amazon my address and credit card number and having the vacuum cleaner bags delivered to my door, I almost always choose the latter.
Similarly, many users appreciate the personalized aspects and conveniences of online shopping, which are enabled by user tracking. Schofield and Joinson (2008) assert that users who maintain the same pseudonym in multiple online arenas can be tracked more effectively than users who switch pseudonyms from site to site (p. 26). As pseudonyms protect a person’s identity, I’m not sure why it’s beneficial for a person to have multiple pseudonyms. I tend to think consumers benefit more from enabling companies to track their usage in order to provide them with better products, recommendations, and customer service than from maintaining multiple pseudonyms in order to inhibit user tracking and preserve the notion of privacy.
Katz and Rhodes (2010) argue that “to stay competitive, as well as avoid potential crises, organizations and the professionals within them must both acknowledge and actively engage in multiple ethical frames of technical relations” (p. 230). Essentially, this is also an argument about establishing and maintaining trust and identity through a digital medium.
The 6 ethical frames Katz and Rhodes present explain how we use technical relations to achieve certain goals. Rhodes’ study, in which she examines Email as A Tool and an End, Email as Values and Thought, and Email as a Way of Being, demonstrates that depending on how we use it, email technology can be: both a means and an end, a value system, a method of rational calculation, and an extension of individual consciousness- or some combination of these. Even in the lowest common denominator of these ethical frames, where email is considered a tool, email is the mechanism that facilitates achieving a common goal through a digital medium, which requires at least some notion of trust and integrity.
Katz and Rhodes (2010) offer, “In delineating the ethical frames of technical relations that define human-machine interactions, we therefore recognize the socially dynamic and constructed nature of ethics; indeed because we do, we hold that technology both instantiates and helps construct social and moral values” (p. 231). This statement illustrates the bidirectional relationship between technology and social and moral values; ethics is a fluid concept that changes as social norms change. Social norms are changing as a result of technology, and thus the ethical frames of technical relations offer us a way to correlate the changing use of technology with corresponding ethical implications.
This week’s readings provide some great insight into how technical communication (and communication in general) can have very different characteristics across cultures. Prior to reading Barry Thatcher’s chapter in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, I hadn’t really thought about this as an issue; I had assumed that intuitive ways of providing instruction and organizing information didn’t vary among cultures. Thatcher’s example of his environmental project with the U.S. and Mexico border illustrates that this was not a valid assumption (although I don’t feel quite so bad because Thatcher admittedly made the same incorrect assumption while teaching technical communication at an Ecuadorian University).
Thatcher presents a framework upon which we can identify the areas of communication that are evident in all cultures: I/Other, Norms/Rules, and Public/Private. He summarizes how different cultures deal with these areas differently, and the implication is that different treatment of these areas requires the use of appropriate communication methods. To communicate effectively within a culture, we need to understand these three areas within the culture and adjust our communication methods accordingly. Even so, Thatcher believes that it is possible and desirable to adapt digital communications to be relevant cross-culturally.
Kenichi Ishii’s article, “Implications of Mobility: The Uses of Personal Communication Media in Everyday Life,” provides another perspective on cultural differences in communication. Ishii makes various points about mobile media in Japan that differ from my understanding of mobile media in the United States. I am wondering whether the differences are because things have changed since 2006 when the article was published, because of cultural differences in how people use mobile media in Japan versus the United States, or a mixture of both.
Ishii (2006) uses the term “mobile mail” to describe both SMS and email messages “via mobile phones because in Japan, SMS and e-mail have almost converged into one service (mail) and users usually cannot clearly distinguish between these two services” (p. 346-347). In my experience, this is very different from in the U.S. Here, SMS messages (text messages) are primarily used as short form communication between two or more well-acquainted mobile phone users, and they travel from one mobile phone number to another. Emails tend to be slightly more formal, email addresses are significantly less private than mobile phone numbers, email messages travel from one email address to another (even if the email is viewed on a mobile phone), and emails can be much longer than text messages.
References to the portable radio, Walkman, and pager also made me wonder whether Japan is at a different point in adoption of mobile technologies or whether the article is simply out of date. In the U.S., portable radios and the Walkman (a portable CD player) have largely been replaced by MP3 players (like the iPod) or by mobile phones that can play music. Pagers have also lost ground to mobile phones. In understanding an article about the implications of mobility on everyday life in Japan, it would be helpful to know whether the differences I noticed are a result of a 7 year old article or cultural differences between Japan and the United States.
I found it very interesting that in Japan users make the most calls using their mobile phones from home, second most from work, and fewest when they are out and about. I wonder if this is true for the United States too. Despite the fact that I have landlines both at home and at work, this is probably true for me as well. I think this is mostly because my mobile phone also acts as a PDA, and I can access my entire phone book in one place and simply press a button to call rather than having to look up and dial a phone number on a landline phone.
Ishii (2006) posits that Japanese youth use text messages as a way to feel connected while avoiding conflict and demanding relationships (p. 349). This is definitely a parallel phenomenon to the U.S. trend Sherry Turkle references in Alone Together. While both Japanese and U.S. youth apparently replace face to face communication with mobile communication at least to some extent, Ishii does point out a study in which about 50% more U.S. adolescents than Japanese adolescents felt that they could initiate a conversation with someone they don’t know. In any case, it seems that understanding cultural differences in communication will help technical communicators to communicate effectively both within different cultures and across cultures.
The chapter “Information Design” in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication echoes a sentiment I’ve been having throughout this class. Salvo and Rosinski make the following point that especially resonates with me: “Use, familiarity, and comfort within these newer information spaces are therefore generational, and technical communicators must now consider how to bridge these generational boundaries that are likely to express themselves as technological preferences” (2010, p.105).
This bridge of generational boundaries is one that I don’t think has been adequately addressed in our readings until now. I think the tone of many of our previous readings has been that technical communicators must change they way they communicate or face the possibility of becoming irrelevant. I found in this frequently repeated theme an implied argument that technical communicators are resistant to new technologies, but their users are not; thus, technical communicators must adapt their communication methods to them to keep up to par with their users.
While I believe that this scenario is the case for some technical communicators, I have encountered the opposite problem in my current job. Savlo and Rosinski argue that technological preferences are generational. I see evidence of this daily; my users, consumers of the documentation I write, are more of my parents’ generation than mine and are more used to and accepting of print communication than digital. In fact, in some cases I have encountered resistance to digital communication, despite the fact that print communication is still equally as available and accessible.
Don’t get me wrong- there are some users (mostly the ones closer to my generation) who do actually want to experience digital communication and even recognize its benefits. For example, my digital communication platform, Doc-to-Help, allows me to link words I’ve used to glossary terms, group key concepts together, offer direct links to related topics, and provide the user with the ability to search for a term or topic. If my users could get comfortable with this digital communication platform, I have no doubt that it would serve them better than a 50 page printed user manual.
In addition, as our product is a SaaS (software as a service) application which is accessed via a computer, an internet connection, and a browser, it should be safe to assume that our users, since they are able to access our applications, do not have the technological obstacles (lack of access to these tools) that Salvo and Rosinski point out could potentially inhibit their accessing online documentation.
Nevertheless, Salvo and Rosinski are right that we as technical communicators do need to do our best to bridge the generational gap and appeal to everyone. I am still trying to figure out the best way to continue making print documentation available for those who really need it but at the same time encouraging my user base to shift to the digital platform as it is faster, less resource intensive, and offers unique functionality.
The aiim white paper, “Systems of Engagement and the future of Enterprise IT,” brought up a very interesting point about how accessibility of technology has changed. Whereas traditionally new technology has been available first to businesses and larger institutions and then has trickled down to smaller organizations and eventually individuals, we are now seeing the opposite trend where technological trends seem to take hold at the individual level and grow until they reach larger organizations.
The aiim paper predicts, though, that businesses will have to speed up their responses to technological innovation and undergo a transformation which will further facilitate collaboration or risk becoming “roadkill” (p. 4). This new way of doing business is described as “Systems of Engagement” rather than its predecessor “Systems of Record” (p. 5).
I can already see this transformation happening in my company. We are a small company, but one of my coworkers works across the country in a different time zone, some of our consultants work in a different time zone as well, and some of our customers are in still different time zones plus have different work hours than us. These growing communication constraints require that we find new and effective ways to engage with each other such as video conferencing and hopefully increasingly better mobile devices and cheaper and more accessible bandwidth as the paper predicts.
In the Introduction of Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, she poses three questions about how the field of technical communication is responding to and evolving with digital technology that the anthology sets out to answer. She sheds some light on what being a technical communicator has meant in the past, what it means today, and what it might mean in the future.
Spilka argues that traditionally technical communicators have acted more as individual contributors than as contributing members to a larger team effort but that technology has transformed the field into one which requires us to take on new and broader roles and responsibilities and work more definitively in the context of a team.
I experience this daily in the workplace, although until reading this chapter I had no idea whether this was typical. My main responsibility is to write user documentation for my company’s web based software applications, but I also perform the roles of user advocate, user experience and application design consultant, customer support representative, and editor for anything that the outside world might see. I work directly with the development team, and I contribute in ways that definitely go beyond technical writing.
One of Spilka’s main themes is that we as technical communicators need to be willing to evolve with our field as new technology emerges if we want to stay relevant. I tend to agree with her, but I have encountered somewhat the opposite problem; the users of my company’s software are mostly of an older demographic and seem somewhat resistant to receiving technical communication digitally. I would like to provide our users with interactive web documentation and instructional videos, but they seem to prefer traditional printed user manuals.
Currently, I am using Doc-to-Help, a documentation publishing software that allows the writer to author in Microsoft Word and then apply styles to create web based documentation and print documentation. I think that interactive web based documentation provides an excellent opportunity to serve the users with relevant information in a clear and easily navigable way, but I am struggling with the fact that although I may not need to evolve much to arrive where technical communication is today, many of my users are not there yet. I need to find a way to embrace the emerging technology and changes in the technical communication field while still catering to my user-base and serving them in a way that they find accessible.
In Erik Qualman’s chapter of Socialnomics “Word of Mouth goes World of Mouth,” he provides many examples of how social media and other technology is changing our daily routines from how we amuse ourselves while waiting in line at the supermarket to where we look for world news and updates on our friends’ whereabouts and activities.
I have heard many people echo the “who cares what I am doing?” sentiment about social media, but often in the same conversations, these people express the desire for information about other people that they could easily obtain via social media. I am connected to my phone and computer constantly, and I am on board with Qualman’s arguments about why social media is useful and how it helps us to fulfill the need to communicate with others and keep apprised of their updates; however, I wouldn’t necessarily agree that social media makes me more productive. I think there are likely times when social media saves me time, but I also think there are many more times when I just fritter away valuable time looking through pictures posted by people I really don’t care about simply because they popped up in my newsfeed.
I found Qualman’s JetBlue Twitter example to be a perfect illustration of a situation in which social media is more effective than traditional means of communication. Qualman and his wife were stranded in the Austin, Texas airport when their flight (and all flights for four days) were cancelled due to extreme weather. They needed to get to Boston as soon as possible and tweeted about their situation asking for help from JetBlue. Although JetBlue’s social media customer service was overwhelmed that day, another traveller was able to respond to Qualman and his wife and help them to develop an immediate and efficient course of action that got them a flight home home rather than a frustrating cycle of phone calls that may or may not have have gotten them home. This, I think, is social media at its best.