Effectively addressing digital audiences is a critical function of being a technical writer. However, our authors this week demonstrate how difficult this task can be. Not only are audiences fragmented in a digital space (as Bernadette Longo points out in chapter 6), but there are many cultural practices and barriers that prevent us from communicating to everyone adequately (as Barry Thatcher shows in chapter 7).
Besides fragmentation and cultural barriers, I would argue that algorithms also create challenges for technical writers to adequately construct, address, and engage with digital audiences.
There are many algorithms that can make it challenging to form a digital audience. For example, Google’s algorithms can make it challenging for users to find your content. In order to rank on the first page, you have to follow rules and tackle specific key terms. I’ve learned that in order to get my articles to rank, they need to be over 1,000 words, mention the keyword more than once, link to multiple websites, have the article be linked on other websites, be published on a Google trusted site, be shared by others, have numerous pictures, and the list goes on.
If you follow these rules and algorithms, it can be quite easy to rank and gives users a means to find your content. However, these rules don’t make it easy to address audiences effectively. I have found myself spending so much time trying to meet the requirements (such as saying the keyword more than 50 times), that I wonder if I’m actually creating helpful content for users. The search results are also so competitive and manipulated that you have to write sensational headlines and more just to get noticed. I’m not saying it’s impossible to write SEO (search engine optimization) content and not have it be helpful, but it certainly presents a challenge to content writers to construct and address digital audiences effectively.
Tom Johnson, a well-known technical writer, states that writing good documentation can be challenging because it can feel like your writing to the “absent user”. That’s because documentation platforms provides little or no measurable means to track how users engage with your content. Of course, as Tom Johnson points out, there are numerous tools that can be used to gather knowledge and feedback of how users are engaging with your documentation — surveys, web analytics, plugins, etc.
Even though we have these tools, I believe Tom Johnson makes a good point that digital spaces (like documentation) don’t inherently give us many tools to understand how users engage with our content. I find this same challenge when writing a corporate blog. I know users are visiting my content due to web analytics and other marketing tools, but it can be difficult to know if the content is addressing their actual needs. In a digital space, the best means to get feedback from users is from surveys, but even this can be challenging because users are usually flooded with so many different forms of digital communication. And when users do take surveys, they can provide general, or extremely non-specific feedback.
No matter how you cut, the web (by design) does not give technical users many helpful ways to address their audiences. They must go out of their way to interact with end users and get feedback. I believe this is why technical writers have to train themselves to become more customer and UX-driven. Without these practices, technical communicators cannot be effective at their job.
Algorithms can also make it challenging for digital creators to create engaging content. For example, have you ever searched a simple question on YouTube and can only find 15 minute long videos that take forever to answer the question you searched? That’s because YouTube’s algorithm favors longer videos, which forces creators to prolong their videos to meet these arbitrary requirements. That means creators could be spending more time trying to extend their video length, rather than creating quality content that actually helps users with problems.
What to do?
While specific rules and algorithms can limit technical writers, they can be easily overcome. In the end, it’s the job of the technical writer to be aware of these rules and continue to find ways to communicate effectively despite them. It’s the reason why we are hired. We’re expected to not just know how to address audiences effectively, but know the algorithms that effect us from being able to communicate adequately.
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.
Has the democratization of the Internet turned us all into Kafka-esque cockroaches? Andrew Keen argues yes in his debate with David Weinberger. From Keen’s perspective, the Internet has stripped away traditional filters and given a voice to the masses — and the resulting clamor shows the worst of humanity. Instead of having gatekeepers in the form of publishers and traditional media sources to groom experts and present us with the best, the unaware Internet user is bombarded by amateurs and their trash.
Image from Books by Audra. http://www.booksbyaudra.com/2016/04/18/considering-kafka/
Weinberger takes the opposing viewpoint that the traditional media filters were flawed, and the Internet offers opportunity for everyday experts and untapped talent. He’s not alone in his assessment. Philip Tetlock created the Good Judgment Project on the premise of nonprofessionals making more accurate predictions than established experts. Tournament style, the project identifies the top two percent of “superforecasters” who don’t have any particular credentials but are amateurs with a knack for making predictions. Through Web 2.0, these individuals are now able to connect and share ideas in a way that was inconceivable just twenty years ago.
Interestingly, most of the articles that I saw about everyone being an expert through the leveling of the Internet were from about five to ten years ago. After that, it stopped being news. Now, it seems that the voice given to the masses is assumed and taken for granted. The last decade has softened it from a potential catastrophe to now just an accepted part of culture.
The twist is that the Internet is both still reliant on traditional gatekeepers and developing new types of filters. As we’ve discussed earlier in this course, the more content is created, the more significant it becomes to navigate and find the right content. Jonathan Zittrain discusses how Google and other search engines have become a de facto filter as people attempt to find material online. Zittrain talks about the tension between “neutral” search algorithms and Google’s moral responsibility to present quality, or at least accurate, sources. His talk acknowledges that most people have a knee-jerk reaction against search engines serving as a “Big Brother” and controlling what you see, but also don’t like the specific examples of overtly wrong or biased sites being at the top of search results. Even though anyone can contribute online, search engines and other tools for navigating the web still provide some basic form of filtering. The questions is how much power should we give them?
Even in light of the massive amount of user-generated content and the new ways of determining what has value, there is still a role for traditional gatekeepers to help audiences from being bombarded. This is good news for Keen who sees “professional intermediaries [as] arbiters of good taste and judgement.” For me, the example that comes to mind is Wikileaks. On one hand, it embodies the ultimate democratization of all information being released to the public online. On the other hand, nobody reads the thousands and thousands of released leaks, and the general public hears about only the top few items of interest as reported by major media outlets. The gatekeepers are still serving to prioritize the information and tell people what they care about.
Wikileaks releases unprecedented amounts of information online, but still relies on traditional filters to make sense of it. The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/nov/29/wikileaks-cables-data
The New York Times just ran the article “WikiLeaks Isn’t Whistleblowing” that offers a scathing condemnation of the Wikileaks approach to “journalism” and argues that massive data dumps are inappropriate and counterproductive by not offering context for the information or discerning what is necessary to share. Tufecki writes, “Mass data releases, like the Podesta emails, conflate things that the public has a right to know with things we have no business knowing, with a lot of material in the middle about things we may be curious about and may be of some historical interest, but should not be released in this manner.”
Putting aside the other moral and privacy questions raised by Wikileaks, it serves as an extreme example of how the Internet enables a massive amount of content from all types of sources, while we’re still figuring out the role for filtering and gatekeeping. Keen warns that if we don’t find an answer, we’ll soon see the worst of ourselves reflected back in the Internet and discover our true cockroach nature.
Tufecki, Z. (4 Nov. 2016). Wikileaks isn’t whistleblowing. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/05/opinion/what-were-missing-while-we-obsess-over-john-podestas-email.html
Good Judgment. Accessed 5 Nov. 2016 https://www.gjopen.com/
Every once in a while, I open a product I have just bought, and feel a little nostalgic for the days of paper manuals. I guess there’s some comfort in knowing that I can seek out instructions regardless of whether I am online. The truth is, when a question does arise, it is second-nature to sit down and search the internet. And, honestly, when am I offline anyways?
I do remember the days when online help wasn’t so easy to come by. If a manual did not have an answer I needed or I didn’t understand it, I was stuck with the time-consuming tasks of doing my own research. Other times, I would come across mistakes in the instructions or information that became outdated after a software update occurred.
So while I think I “miss” the days of paper documentation accompanying products, I don’t miss all that they represent. I like that I can search for specific issues quickly. I love that outdated or inaccurate information is usually wiped away. And, it’s super convenient that customer support is often a click away, instead of requiring a call to the customer support line.
Now don’t get me wrong, I still print out a lot of the instructions that I look up in customizable searches. I do this because, in many cases, it is easier for me to follow directions on paper. (It is an annoying personality quirk of mine that costs me untold amounts of money buying ink and paper.) I also find that I often look up the same issue repeatedly. I have certain applications that I use on a regular basis. There is usually a function or two that I only use occasionally, so I find that when that rare occasion comes up, I need a refresher on how to do it.
Along with my printing habit, I like to cut and paste chunks of helpful or interesting information from help sections, and put them into a Microsoft document for future reference. I bookmark a lot of pages too. There is a problem though. This inconsistent data collection makes it very difficult to access the information. I have to search my saved documents which leaves me trying to remember if I saved it on my laptop or desktop? Hard drive or memory drive? If I bookmarked it then I have to search through all the bookmark and Chrome and Internet Explorer. This is assuming that I actually recall saving it in the first place. Often I go look up the same information again, only to notice I already had it, when I go to save it. Sigh.
The idea of being able to customize my own instructional text on a site is an incredibly exciting concept (Spilka, 2010, p.206)! I imagine all those topics that I go back to time and time again at my fingertips. No more haphazard organization of all the information I want to retain. No more wasted time looking for information, only to realize I already have it documented somewhere. Just one site to go back to, the source. Not only would all the information that I need be structured in the way that best meets my needs, but I could also add more information or remove what I no longer need. That would be the ultimate user experience!
Until that becomes widely available, I will continue to appreciate the ways that digital media is enabling writers to provide better and more targeted content. The use of digital media has not lead to a homogenized audience, but has instead given many new opportunities for writers to tap into the specific needs of the reader. They no longer have to make assumptions about the reader’s needs and can instead utilize a variety of user information absorbed from observing the user directly. In many ways, the move to greater use of online documentation, defies the image of the internet widening the distance between people. In this instance, online media allows for a greater personal connection with the audience.
Content strategy is a buzzword that people have been using the past few years, but what does it mean and why should organizations care? We can all agree that Web 2.0 technology and applications have changed how people use content. We can also agree that if content is not useful and easy to find, customers and users will move on. My paper considers how a technical communicator can transform content into a business asset by responding to the following questions:
- What is a content strategy? What is it not?
- How do you develop a content strategy?
- What is a content audit?
- How do you implement a content strategy?
Once the above questions are answered, my paper concludes with my own case study in understanding what is involved in a content strategy and some of the challenges faced when I converted my company’s FrameMaker files into DITA.
Prior to this class, I had never blogged. I kind of like it. I also learned that I hold my breath when I check my work email. 🙂