Category Archives: Technology
This week we tackled Chapters 3-5 in Spilka’s 2010 text Digital Literacy. Working backwards with Chapter 5: “Content Management,” the chapter’s author William Hart-Davidson reassures us that technical communicators should not be so fretful about their profession since the proliferation of content management in the digital age will make their jobs more valuable, not less. However, he shares that “in an information economy, more workers will write” (p. 129). So while content management will alleviate some of the fears of job loss that technical communicators face, they must accept that more people in their organizations will write. In some ways, this gives technical writers even more to do; as in, do they become the gatekeepers of all communication? Realistically, they cannot. With an already-expanding job description, technical writers cannot manage all the tasks of content creation plus content management in a silo or as a solitary member of the team. They need help, which is where educators can help to reinforce the need for strong writing skills, across disciplines. Quotes like those help reinforce for my undergraduate students that they all need better writing skills, no matter what profession they are going into. If “communication is why companies operate,” then all workers must be better communicators (p. 135).
As I read chapters 3-5 of Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication (2010), I realized that as the instructor/content manager of multiple Blackboard shells for multiple classes, I am acting as a technical writer for the classes I teach. With a background in technical writing, I hope that I am skilled at thinking about usability, audience needs, and communication when I create those shells, but putting myself in the mind of a technical communicator can possibly allow me to see the areas where my students struggle, particularly important for online courses. In Chapter 4: “Information Design,” authors Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski explain how “technical communicators are well situated to contribute to the development of information spaces and to advocate for users needs in emerging digital spaces” (p. 105). My primary job as an instructor is to help my students understand and apply content, so it is in my best interest and theirs to give more consideration to how they use our digital spaces. Much of what the authors cover in this chapter aligns with what we discuss when reviewing audience analysis and writing purposes. The same tenets apply to critical literacy.
Salvo and Rosinski made me ponder how I apply the notions of granularity, mapping, signposting, metadata, and pattern language in my classes. Over the last several years, our college has created and mandated a standard template that all instructors must use in designing their Blackboard (like D2L) shells. The left-side navigation is all the same, and there are standard buttons we must all use; however, we can customize the design (colors and flair) of the Blackboard shell, add buttons, and arrange the content within the shell as we so choose. When this change was first proposed, there was faculty outcry about academic freedom, but the changes were user driven. Our students had complained about the lack of consistency from instructor to instructor, course to course. Looking over the shoulders of students as they try to find information helps me see where more or fewer signposts are needed. The authors caution that we shouldn’t expect users to remember a virtual space’s ambience, so adding in additional maps and signposts could be helpful (p. 12).
Finally, with Chapter 3: “Shaped and Shaping Tools,” author Dave Clark highlights three main theories we can begin to apply to the “rhetoric of technology” to better understand it, or to assess the “broader implications” and “potential influence” that technologies have on how we communicate (p. 87). This chapter inspired me to create an assignment that asks students to analyze their expectations of, experiences with, and performance of a certain tool, say Microsoft Word or PowerPoint. I’ve formerly assigned a rhetorical analysis of a piece of writing, but asking students to perform a rhetorical analysis on a tool of communication may be valuable to them and could reveal some real benefits and issues with those tools.
No doubt that new technologies and tools will carve new avenues of consideration for technical communicators and educators and will affect how we talk about and practice the rhetoric of technology. Just as the World Wide Web had to outgrow its ugly baby stage to reach maturation, all new tech tools will force societies to determine their best uses, standards, and rules. Again, the overarching theme of all of these three chapters seems to be to remain flexible and open to change, and to consider the hows and whys of what we do and how to do it best.
As video usage and video views continue to grow, so does the importance of making video a key part of digital design. A Forbes headline from June reads “Video Marketing in 2018 Continues to Explode.” Consider this statistic from the article: more than 500 million hours of videos are watched daily on YouTube. In a 2018 survey that Hubspot conducted, 81% of businesses reported using video as a marketing tool, which is up 18% from last year’s survey.
Video Placement Guidelines
Despite the increased profile of videos, many people still place them at the bottom of emails, hide them in links, or forget about them altogether. A 2015 article by Stjepan Alaupovic for OnlineVideo.net has some practical guidelines for the placement of video on websites:
- Use a simple video player that viewers are used to seeing such as YouTube or Vimeo with a video play button to provide a visual cue to users.
- Place videos above the fold (in the top part of the screen) and in a prominent spot so that viewers see them easily.
- Enhance search engine optimization (SEO) with good metadata including a description that includes the word video and a verbatim transcription.
Recently, my own firm was redesigning our website. When the plan for the site was presented at a meeting, video was not part of it. Not only is video a product of most agencies today, it is essential for capturing an audience’s attention and presenting information in today’s digital environment.
Video Gallery or Library
In Chapter 4 of Digital Literacy for Technical Communication on information design, Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski discuss the need for technical communicators to consider “findability” of documents and information. Today, users want to be able to find information in many formats including video. Websites should have a video gallery or library that is linked in a tab, card, or area of the homepage that is easy to see. Videos should be organized by category and playlists. Descriptive thumbnail images are useful, too.
Many organizations spend time, effort, and money producing videos, but they fail to consider where the video will be placed online, how it will be seen, and why users will view it. I recommend starting any video project by completing a video creative brief that lists a series of questions that should be considered. One of the most important questions to answer is “where will this video live online?” Below, you’ll find an example of a video creative brief.
This past year, I turned 42, and I’ve had to start admitting that I’m now “middle aged.” Gasp. Forty was harder than I thought it would be, and I’m trying to age gracefully, but I hear poet Dylan Thomas’s ghost whispering to me, “Do no go gentle into that good night!” I get the same feeling every time I read about the evolution of the technical communication field. Practitioners and textbook authors seem positively anxious about what’s happening in the field, and I would argue unnecessarily so. Each field goes through growing pains, and as a former technical writer and a teacher of writing, I’m less concerned about what we call it and more concerned about what we do and how we continue to evolve gracefully within the profession.
When entrenched in any field of study or interest, it’s important to understand its history. The historical timeline that R. Spilka (2010) chronicles in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication covers some obvious changes that have occurred in the last several decades. Changing social norms, technologies, and business practices have had the largest impacts: more women are writers, more work is online, all technical communication work is done using technology, and as a result the skill set that technical communicators need has expanded. This is true of most professions. My mom taught in a two-room schoolhouse. She didn’t use a learning management system (LMS) to display course content or let students and parents review grades online. As a twenty-first century instructor, I use an LMS daily, most of my classes have computers, and we’re offering many more online courses. The profession changes, and so do we as practitioners.
When I graduated in 1999 and shortly after was hired to be a technical writer for an internet-based start-up company, I wished that my undergraduate degree had prepared me more for the technical aspect of the field. I had used Word to write essays, but that was about it. I had to teach myself some HTML, graphics, and the new-at-the-time RoboHelp program. Spilka notes that when the internet bubble burst a few years later, more employers were looking for the technical communicators who had those technical skills (p. 37). Teaching myself those skills was good for me. It made me more motivated and confident, but it would’ve been easier to transition quickly into the field with more computer software and technical skills.
At my first writing job, I was a lone technical writer in a group of computer software engineers. As I moved on to my next writing job, I would start to mimic some of the changes that emerged from Phase 3 to Phase 4, according to Spilka. In the early ‘00s as the Internet became part of our workplaces and households, my work broadened to include website copy, marketing brochures, both print and online, and working within a team of writers for multiple clients. By this time, the Internet and the websites on it had a less rinky-dink and a more professional appearance. Internally, we developed standards guides that we distributed throughout the company and expected everyone to adhere to. Rather than just seen as “translators,” we were included in design and
marketing meetings. Quite honestly, I liked it better that way.
Spilka caps off the second chapter of Digital Literacy by writing, “technical communicators’ work is undergoing significant changes at a rapid pace” (p. 75). He later admits that all industries are.
No longer is it enough to just be a writer. Technical communicators (aka symbolic analysts) must be Jacks and Jills of all skills and must keep those skills up-to-date with the changing needs of the market–as must most employees in this information age. The largest take-away from these two first chapters is the need for technical communicators to keep demonstrating their value, and that means their dollar value. With the threat of downsizing and globalization, the author posits that technical communicators must muscle their way to mission alignment and administrative recognition. It seems like this shouldn’t be necessary, but I suppose it is.
Spilka ends Chapter 2 with “While the period ahead may be at times unsettling for practitioners and educators alike in the technical communication profession, it also promises the kinds of challenges and rewards as such periods always yield” (78). That’s right, Dylan Thomas! We won’t go gently, but go we must.
P.S. Googling images of middle-aged people is an exercise in humility itself. It results in a lot of Truman Show-esque couples in weirdly smiling embraces.
Chapter 1 and 2 of “Digital Literacy For Technical Communication” focuses on the history, the role, and the value of technical writers. Chapter 2 can feel like a downer because it discusses how the role of the technical writer can be vague for managers. In fact, Dicks writes “Technical communicators need to worry about how they are perceived and evaluated and whether they might be likely sources for being reengineered and either either eliminated or outsourced” (64).
I have felt these worries myself at times. After a copywriter left the company, my manager decided to hire a different role versus hiring a new writer. It made me wonder if he didn’t see the value of having two writers on his team. Dick outlines his four points for how technical writers can still show their worth in today’s companies. In my post, I’m going to discuss how I show my value to my managers and company. I’ve discussed iterative design enough in my previous posts, so I’m going to leave this skill out of the list (although I heavily suggest gaining design skills as a technical communicator).
UX Expert or User Advocacy
I believe technical writers have a better understanding of the company’s customers than most employees in a organization. That’s because technical writers have to think about the needs of the customer whenever they write a blog post, a case study, documentation, etc. This puts technical writers in a prime position to lead UX (User Experience) efforts in a company.
I commonly contribute to UX discussion, especially in regards to the design of my company’s website and products. However, it is not enough to simply know UX. In “Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited“, UX professional, Steve Krug, states that most believe they know UX regardless if they have been trained or not.
As technical writers, that means you must become versed and trained in UX practices. Back up your assumptions about users with usability tools. I am currently designing a usability study using a research tool called UserTesting. With this tool, I plan to run 10 unmoderated tests that will help me understand how users feel about my company’s website. I am also running a survey to better understand user’s direct feedback about the company. Through these efforts, I am showing my company that I can lead my company’s UX efforts. I am bringing consistent value by helping them gain more insights about our customer base.
I don’t think I need to discuss how content strategy works because most of us already know it. But I do believe we possibly underestimate the value of this skill. In my experience, I’ve run into two types of writers in companies — those who just want to write, and those who strategize and write. I totally understand just wanting to be left alone to write and not focus so much on the strategy part. Content strategy takes away time from writing. And most of the time, the content plans you put together can be hard to stick to. However, you will gain respect from your colleagues if you do spend time putting this strategy together.
I realized the value of content strategy after interviewing marketing directors. I’ve been interviewing directors a lot because my company is currently looking for one for our marketing team (this person would essentially become my boss). One candidate asked me some interesting questions after our interviews. She was extremely interested to know how I spend my time as a writer. Based on her questions, I could tell she was trying to figure out if I was a writer who just wrote, or if I was willing to be content strategist as well. This caused me to reflect on other questions director candidates have asked me, and they are always asking me about my content strategy. Even when I meet with my non-marketing director, he is asking me about my content strategy.
Even though content strategy isn’t my favorite thing in the world, I’ve learned that many see tremendous value in taking the time to spin up a plan.
The Bottom Line
You may be feeling that this list is extremely marketing oriented. Like Saul Carliner’s history of the technical writer in Chapter one of our readings, my list has a personal dimension to it. There are still many ways technical writers can add value to their company through other means: programming, documentation, product management, etc. I would love to hear how the rest of you have found ways to bring value to your company, organization, or even to yourself, in your profession.
In Superconnected, Mary Chayko discusses the inception of Google. It was developed by Stanford PhD students Larry Page and Sergey Brin and revolutionized the internet when the search engine became publicly available in the late 90s and created algorithms in the early 2000s. Today, Google is the world’s leading search engine.
“At the same time that it produces results for the user, Google also stores, caches, and archives large portions of web content as the web is being searched…Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, and other major tech companies also allow the data that flows in and through their platforms to be mined and in some cases participate in the mining. As a result, nearly everything that is done on the internet is tracked, analyzed, stored, and then used for a variety of purposes,” Chayko writes.
Google Accumulates Power
In May of this year, Steve Kroft of the TV news magazine 60 Minutes reported on the power of Google and critics who say the company, worth three quarters of a trillion dollars, is stifling competition. Google, which is owned by the holding company Alphabet, went public in 2004. It has also bought more than 200 companies including YouTube, the largest video platform, and Android, which runs 80% of smartphones.
In the 60 Minutes story, Gary Reback, a well-known antitrust lawyer, says Google is a monopoly. He says it’s a monopoly not only in search, but also other industries such as online advertising. Plus, Google accumulates information about users and sells that information to advertisers. He points out that people tell search engines more than they tell their spouses, giving Google a “mind-boggling degree of control over our entire society.”
The Business Insider reports Google is also a major player in the news industry, surpassing Facebook last year as “the leading source of traffic to news publishers’ websites according to Chartbeat…the majority of traffic to publishers’ websites from mobile devices.”
Google Dominates its Competition
Also, in May, the Wall Street Journal’s Christopher Mims wrote about the growing demand to break up the monopolies of Google, Facebook, and Amazon. He writes, “…as they consolidate control of their markets, negative consequences for innovation and competition are becoming evident.”
Jonathan Taplin, a digital media expert, says in the 60 Minutes story that Google has no real competition because it has 90% of the search market and Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, has 2%. The co-founder of Yelp, Jeremy Stoppelman, points out that Google has changed its search results over the years so that instead of returning the best information from around the internet, results at the top of the first page are often from Google properties. Google lists results from its own data first such as maps, restaurant reviews, shopping, and travel information. This is especially important when many users are viewing results on the small screen of a mobile phone.
Google Faces Regulation
Google has been fined by the European Union for anticompetitive actions. Over the summer, the EU slapped Google with a $5 billion fine. According to the Business Insider, the EU ordered Google to stop using its Android operating system to block competitors. Google is appealing that fine. Last year, the EU fined Google $2.7 billion for illegally promoting its shopping search results over its competitors.
The U.S. government should follow the example of the EU and provide more oversight of Google and other tech giants. It’s clear that Google is a powerful force in society, and with the company’s dominance comes the need for transparency and accountability. Recently, Google, Facebook, and Twitter have been called to testify and answer questions at U.S. Congressional hearings regarding Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. An Axios article by David McCabe had more ideas on how the government could provide oversight:
- Require Google to release more information regarding its algorithms
- Make it easier to sue big tech companies like Google
- Designate it as a “common carrier” which would allow the government to appoint a body to oversee Google
All of these options should be considered, and more should be done to make sure Google and other powerful tech companies do not wield too much influence over our lives without our knowledge and consent. It should be noted that I relied heavily on Google to research this blog post.
This week’s readings included many interesting topics; however, like many in elder-care facilities, Paro played with my pathos and had me reject reflecting on logos. That statement may not be entirely true for caring for our elderly is logical as well as emotional. I had never heard of Paro , My Real Baby, Nursebot or Wandakun; however, I have little experience in nursing homes or elder-care.
It seems logical that ” there are not enough people to take care of aging Americans, so robot companions should be enlisted to help” (Turkle, 2011, pg 106). Although Turkle initially had resistance to how the word “care” was used, she eventually accepted that these caring machines/robots have a place in today’s world. Of course that decision came after interviewing nursing home patients who were “cared” for by these robotic companions. Plus, like Michael Sandel’s graduate students, Turkle considered how “robotic companionship could lead to moral complacency” (pg. 124).
I began reading this chapter a couple of weeks ago, but soon put it down, for it made me think of my grandmother who died after an 8 year battle with Alzheimer’s. Last week I decided to delve further in the chapter and began to see the benefits of these robots. As Turkle reports, “one nursing home director says, ‘Loneliness makes people sick. This could at least partially offset a vital factor that makes people sick'” ( p. 109). She then shares information about various nursing home residents and their relationship with their robotic companions. The elderly felt comfort, caring, purpose and much more when interacting with their Paro or My Real Baby.
When my grandmother was in the nursing home, she had her room filled with dolls and stuffed animals. She talked to them and told them stories. On my last visit, I just watched her take care of her babies, for she no longer knew who I was (she pointed to a picture she had taped on her wall of a little girl and said, “this is Lani–not you.”). Ironically, she was telling her dolls and babies about her grandkids. She talked with so much love and affection about us– I had never seen her like that before, for she was an old German woman who felt one shouldn’t show emotions or be sentimental. However, at this mental state, those walls were down and she was just telling a story about her grandkids, as if she was a kid right along with them. I am quite sure she subconsciously knew who I was, for before I left, she said, “I don’t know who you are, but I know I love you.” That is the only time she has ever said that to me.
Those dolls and stuffed animals did for her what the robotic companions did for the people Turkle spoke with– it allowed them to feel and possibly express themselves in a way they couldn’t do before. The companions stimulate their minds and emotions– keeping their brains active and allowing them to feel closeness with others even when they are not with their loved ones. Those companions are worth any price tag!
As I read Dave Clark’s “Shaped and Shaping Tools,” I was immediately brought back to rhetorical theory class with Dr. Dana Heller at Old Dominion University. I envisioned the chalkboard (yes, that long ago!) with drawing about sign, symbol and signifier of de Saussure and interpretrent, representamen and object of Charles Sanders Pierce.
Of course, I teach my students how to write a rhetorical analysis in some of my composition classes, but we usually don’t delve into theory, so I enjoyed reading about it again in another graduate class, albeit 20 years later, and to learn about applying it to technologies. According to Clark, rhetorical analysis is “a loose grouping of related types of work that share a common goal: complicating common-sense understandings of technologies by analyzing them from a variety of rhetorical perspectives that demonstrate their immersion in social and rhetorical perspectives that demonstrate their immersion in social and rhetorical processes” ( 2010, pg. 92-3). Clark discusses how the classical rhetorical approach can be effective; however “Johnson suggests that as a field we must argue for a rhetorical approach to technological design and implementation that places the users, rather than the systems, at the center of our focus. . .(2010, p. 93). I agree, for when I teach my students about technical writing, I have them focus on audience, purpose and context. This line of thinking done before drafting is similar to one who designs and builds technology. Those designers must consider the user, their purpose and the context of which they will use that technology. When I have my students write website reviews, they critique the design, function, userability, etc. as it relates to the user. These reviews are written for a website designer in order to make the website more appealing and functional for the users.
If one is going to create technology, it is only logical to consider the audience who will use that technology, how they will use that technology and with whom they will use that technology. Therefore, activity theory considers groups and individuals who “are analyzed with a triangular approach that emphasizes the multidirectional interconnections among subjects, the mediational means or the tools they use to take action and the object or problem space on which the subject acts” (Clark, 2010, 98-99).
So, since technology emerged and reshaped man’s ability to communicate and complete tasks, the rhetoric of technology had to emerge and be shaped to meet the more complex world we live in. There is an obvious correlation between classic rhetorical theory and activity theory of technology today.
Technology today is embedded in our lives and we need to examine the contexts in which we rely on them in order to understand, assess and design them in order for ease and use of their users.
Hart-Davidson hits the nail on the head, Content Management Systems (CMS) “do not do that work by themselves” (p. 14). A CMS can give a company what they are willing to put into it. They are not a solution, they are a tool. They are exactly what we make of it. Hart-Davidson states that “technical communicators typically come to play many different roles and deploy diverse sets of skills over the course of a career” when using CMS (p. 134). The roles mentioned must be assumed, but to successfully integrate the CMS into the company, the company must also integrate one or more company processes into the system to really benefit from it.
Training or some kind of education on how the company uses a CMS is a key to success. I’ve used quite a few systems and have seen excellent and poor uses of them in companies. When companies don’t have any rules around how a CMS is used, it becomes a free-for-all of good and bad information. It’s confusing. There is a plethora of online content available online for learning how to use and manage CMS systems online. However, even if you know how to use the system, this may not be how the company uses it. The video below only touches on some common mistakes in administrating SharePoint itself and it’s over an hour long.
Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski both discuss “mapping” and “signposting” in information design (pp. 112-114). These concepts are a big part of UX and extremely important to ensure users can become literate in a system. I’ve found these levels of user interface designs are not well applied to most CMS. At one of the companies I worked for I had to redesign the front-end of a SharePoint site to make it more accessible and simplified for others in the company. This tells me that we have a long way to go in our design of CMS from a design perspective. Confusion in using the interface itself will almost surely create inconsistent data, especially when most people will have access to the system.
Process in how you use a CMS is key to making the system useful. Yes, it can allow versioning of documents, but when people are not required to update or sign off on documentation, it can create data that looks trustworthy but is not. Most systems have workflows integrated into them, but unless going through that workflow is a part of a sign off process for the deployment of a product, then why would people go through the hassle?
To make sure our documentation is trustworthy, my team and I will link our documents to specific releases of software. This way it will be clearer in what context you can assume a document may be relevant for. In terms of metadata we make sure that everything is under our team’s section in the system. We also have the option to tag certain customers if the document is specifically relevant to that context. The process we employ around this ensures that we do not have to continually maintain every document, but instead deploy documentation at our own pace and as needed.
I don’t think I could live without a CMS at a company these days, because the alternatives are much worse. But literacy in these systems remains a problem. This is probably due to the fact that the users are not the same as the customer. Additionally, I see many systems treated as a golden solution instead of a platform. It will be interesting to see how these systems and their usages evolve over time.