Author Archives: lanaksolberg
Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve gone from not generally making purchases or otherwise disclosing personal information online to regularly doing so. I’m sure this is the case for many people—online purchasing and using the Internet for social networking has required us to become more comfortable with it, or retreat. In this week’s reading “Privacy, Trust, and Disclosure Online,” Carina Paine Schofield and Adam Joinson examine the complex relationship between privacy and trust and our resulting willingness to disclose information in an online environment. A lot of what they covered seemed like common sense to me. Perceived privacy contributes to trust; both are necessary for us to be willing to disclose information online.
Schofield and Joinson’s explanation of the different aspects of trust stood out to me as being particularly relevant to my own evaluation of a company’s online presence. I think I regularly (if subconsciously) make judgments about companies based on the following.
- Ability, or the knowledge or competence of the company and its ability to handle my information appropriately.
- Integrity, or the belief that the company is honest, reliable, and credible.
- Benevolence, or the extent to which the company is doing right by me.
It’s almost common sense; I wouldn’t do business with someone face-to-face if I didn’t think they were competent and capable, honest and credible, and were taking my interests into account. Why should it be any different online? Admittedly, the stakes are higher in many ways online. After all, we’re leaving behind information about ourselves that doesn’t go away—ever.
I think that’s why providing users with a sense of control is especially important. Schofield and Joinson explain, “…where possible, users should be provided with control over whether to disclose personal information and the use of that personal information once disclosed” (p. 26). When we can decide whether we “prefer not to disclose” answers to certain questions, or whether we only populate the required fields, we maintain some degree of control. (For me, being able to indicate that I don’t want to receive email offers is one control option I greatly appreciate!)
It became apparent when I started my current job as a technical communicator that pinning down audience is no simple task. Working for a national student loan servicing company, the team of writers I work on creates deliverables for various audiences such as schools, lenders, borrowers, the U.S. Department of Education, and internal employees. Distinguishing between these audiences is relatively straightforward, but distinguishing sub-audiences within them—actually knowing whom I’m writing for and what they need to know—is something I have struggled with from day one.
Prior to taking this course, and even prior to this week’s readings, I hadn’t fully recognized that a great deal of the complexity I experience in my job today is because of society’s evolution into the digital age. Furthermore, the challenges I encounter at my company are not unique to my company or its industry at all; they are largely universal challenges that technical communicators are encountering throughout the world. Ann Blakeslee’s chapter (“Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age”) in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication illustrated many parallels to the challenges I encounter every day.
The Internet allows for the dissemination of information on a scale that has never been seen before. Our writing is often available to anyone who is online and looking for it. While this broad audience is an overwhelming thought, it doesn’t necessitate that we write for everyone at once. Blakeslee explains,
“While technical communicators may not know their exact audiences, the complexity of the product and typical environments in which the product is used provide them with guidance in understanding their prospective readers” (p. 204).
Basically, we can use information we know about the product and where/how it is used to make judgments about the audience. This is something many of do without even thinking about it. For example, I can assume that users of one of my company’s online applications are employees in a school’s financial aid office. Along with that, they are extremely likely to have a moderate level of knowledge about student loan disbursements. This makes it much easier than writing assuming a global audience with next to no knowledge about student loan disbursements—not to mention it makes for more useful documentation.
But learning about the audience beyond this, is where I think the biggest challenges lie. For me, this has largely been knowing precisely (or even generally!) what the audience needs to know and even better, a ranking of the tasks they must perform in the tool. The best way to get this information (obviously) is straight from the audience through interaction and/or feedback, which is not an easy (or even possible) task for many of us. Blakeslee’s case studies sounded so familiar I could have been one of them! Unfortunately, in my position I am not able to get direct feedback from the audience on the content my team writes. The main reasons for this are:
- The privacy of the customer. Any time there is financial information involved, privacy becomes a concern.
- My time and the customer’s time, or lack thereof. My company’s customers are widespread making travel not feasible. Also, many schools, for example, are under-staffed and under-funded; asking for their time would quickly become an inconvenience for them.
- Existing roles and processes are hard to change. Moving beyond the customer service and sales staff having all outwardly facing contact with customers is difficult and requires the buy-in of management (which is not super likely given the first two bullet points).
Virtually all of these were mentioned by the participants in Blakeslee’s case studies. In my case, we have made efforts to obtain information about audiences from sales and customer service staff. Often, they are able to tell us what confuses users and when/how they use a tool. While it’s not as good as interacting one-on-one with members of the audience, it’s better than nothing!
With communication technologies evolving at incredibly fast pace, it is certain our interaction with the audiences we write for will continue to evolve and improve. I am incredibly interested to see how this aspect of technical communication changes in the coming years.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned since starting my career as a technical communicator, it’s that content (information) is useless when the audience can’t find it. Moreover, it’s not much better than useless when the audience doesn’t know how to use or navigate it. I think Michael Salvo and Paula Rosinski’s chapter (Information Design) in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication covers some incredibly valid points about the potential for technical communicators’ contribution to information design.
Technical communicators, myself included, often have a hand in information design from micro-level sentences and paragraphs, to deliverable design and visual appearance, on up to the macro-level organization of information libraries. From my experience, an interesting byproduct of this is that, among technical communicators, skills and experience can vary so greatly. Additionally, the role of technical communicators varies significantly from organization to organization.
At my company I work in the marketing and communications department (which is definitely not always the case for technical communicators). My department consists of marketing writers and technical writers that produce client communications and supporting documentation among other deliverables. Interestingly, there is also an e-commerce department (not part of marketing) that produces the company’s website and its online tools/applications. The writers in my department regularly work with the e-commerce department. Together we aim to create the most impactful products for the audience, but I’m not going to lie, it can be a struggle at times.
By title, e-commerce doesn’t have any “writers” and marketing and communications doesn’t have any “designers,” but we both must contribute those skills—the skills of technical communicators—to perform our jobs successfully. The tricky part is knowing who is responsible for what, who has what expertise, and whose feedback or suggestions add the most value to the information and its usability. What’s clear is that there will always be information design overlap between these two groups. It’s also clear that we can provide the largest benefit to the audience of our deliverables when we successfully leverage the strongest skills of both groups.
From my perspective, a lot of the awkwardness of this arrangement stems from the fact that e-commerce and marketing and communications are two separate departments (and divisions of the company)—basically, office politics. I know there isn’t a quick or easy solution for all groups within a company to work cohesively together, but how can companies encourage an all-encompassing approach to information design? I’m not sure I have an answer.
I always find it fascinating to read about the history of the technical communication profession. It is undeniable that technology—particularly the advent of personal computers and the Internet—has completely transformed the landscape for technical communicators. Saul Carliner’s chapter (Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century) in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication does a great job describing the impact of technological changes on the role of the technical communicator.
“Technology has always played a central role in technical communication. At first, it served primarily as the subject about which technical communicators wrote. As various publishing technologies emerged, the technology also became the tool that facilitated the work” (p. 45).
Advancements in technology have certainly made life much easier for technical communicators today than in past decades. Frankly, I can’t imagine the amount of rework that communicators had to put into early documents created using a typewriter, retyping content for each correction or addition. Additionally, the challenges that came along with printing and formatting in the 1970s and 1980s were considerable. Today we, as technical communicators, have fancy software that comparably makes it a breeze for us to perform our jobs, and to create an appealing and usable product that meets the needs of our audience.
While I came away from this chapter with a new appreciation for all the technological advancements we benefit from, I also now recognize that the role of the technical communicator has become a lot more complex as well. Not only do we have more than ever to document (i.e., our potential subject matter has increased significantly), but there is an infinitely larger audience to reach.
In my current position, audience is something we constantly try to evaluate. In writing about my company’s products, it is sometimes difficult to know what level of knowledge and skill an audience has right off the bat. Some users are probably well versed in using computers and technology, others may not be. What do we assume the user already knows? This is even further complicated by language and cultural barriers. Even when a company only produces content for an audience within the United States it can be difficult to determine an appropriate reading level and vocabulary.
I have to admit, I’m thankful to be a technical communicator today, with all the technology we have available to help us do our jobs. But I certainly acknowledge that this same technology does add to the complexity that exists within the field.