Before airing a new T.V. show, networks and studios test the pilot on an audience focus group. The audience members turn a knob based on their reaction to different parts of the episode, and their response can determine whether the show makes it to the screen or dies right there (“Test Audiences Can Make or Break New T.V. Series”).
In the technical communications world, understanding our audience and receiving audience feedback is also vital to creating high-quality documentation, but it’s much harder to achieve. Blakeslee writes about “the importance for technical communicators of continuing to give careful thought both to identifying their audiences and to accommodating their audiences’ needs and interests” (p. 200), yet she says that our industry has failed to investigate audience needs in the digital age. It seems to me that we misunderstand our audience in several ways, including their relation to technology, and the lack of audience awareness can severely limit our documentation.
One pitfall of not appropriately understanding our audience is falling into the activity theory framework, where we narrowly define our audience based on a single task instead of a comprehensive cultural understanding. As Longo states,
“If, as technical communicators, we make decisions based only on our understanding of activities and not of the cultural contexts in which these activities are embedded, we run the risk of proposing documents and systems that do not fit well with the organization where we work and our goals for the future” (p. 160).
At the company where I work, we constantly walk the line between specific task-oriented instructions balanced with a larger understanding of strategic and operational needs. Here are the steps to set up XYZ printer. Why? Because a certain type of medication label only prints on XYZ printer. Understanding that context, can we also guide readers about how many printers they’ll need and where to place them?
Not only do we need to learn about our audiences’ situation and goals, but we also need to learn about how the audience approaches the documentation itself based on their cultural context. In “Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures,” Barry Thatcher gives several warnings about how the culture of our audience changes their approach to documentation. Although his main example is about internal communication, the same principles apply to customer-facing documents, as reflected in the school websites that he analyzes. By knowing more about the culture of our audience, we can tailor tone and content to appropriately address an individualist vs. collectivist mindset, or universalist vs. particular understanding. I shudder sometimes to think about all the things that I ignorantly say just because my perspective is so limited. The American Marketing Association actually published “The Olympics are Coming: Lessons for Cross-Cultural Advertising” to head off some foot-in-mouth moments.
Finally, as Blakeslee alludes to, we need to understand how our audience approaches documentation differently when it’s digital. This goes directly to Katz and Rhodes discussion of six different ethical frames through which audiences might approach technology. I might seek ways to optimize electronic document delivery, seeing it as both a means and an ends. My reader who gets the document likely sees the delivery process as only a tool and having value only as a delivery mechanism. Similarly, if we approach our documents assuming a sanctity frame, we could alienate task-focused readers who have a “us and them” mindset to technology.
Technical communications doesn’t get nearly as much help in understanding our audience as T.V. shows. Instead of focus groups, we get occasional blog comments. However, I think the more we know about our audience, the more we can create content that addresses their specific context, culture, and relation to technology.
As a professional in the world of technical communication, I often wonder what my role really means for the organization. When people ask me what I do, I often pause and respond with some generic phrase like, “I decipher geek speak for non-technical people”. But, at times I am in the business of marketing our department to the rest of the organization. At other times, I am compiling “How To Instructions” (when I can get away with it). But I often wonder at what point in time does one cross the line between technical communicator, to support help, or even to technical subject matter experts (SMEs). And this idealism off too many cooks in the kitchen seems to ring true from a technical communication standpoint.
I am always asking questions and trying to drive out more information from technical SMEs. In return I am cornered with negative responses and many people not understanding why I’m asking the questions I am asking. Or, my favorite, telling me that no one actually needs to know that (because technical professionals are so good at putting into human terms what they really need to say. But for me this is where Dicks (2010), identifies that technical communication is developing and changing in a number of different ways (p. 58).
I personally believe it is this change, this evolution that may be causing angst for many newer generation technical communicators. Many organizations have to spread out responsibilities and for some organizations; technical communication is a fairly new commodity (especially if they are not delivering some type of technological solution to the consumer world). In the case at my organization, internal technical communication is fairly new and while our primary product is food related, technology is still at the core of our business functions.
I particularly find the following graphic interesting as well when it comes to this concept around both the change that technical communication is unfolding within organizations today and the correlation with “too many cooks in the kitchen”.
This graphic is based on products by LearnMax (2015), a company who specializes in technology training. But for me it is the categories that truly resonate with the different areas of technical communication that I see quite often.
As technical communicators we need to have a baseline knowledge of what we are writing/communicating about. Unfortunately we cannot always trust the SMEs to know what we need and why we need. It’s this type of information that I believe drives technical communication. Dicks (2010) further states, “reshaping [our] status will involve learning technologies and methodologies such as single sourcing and information, content, and knowledge management, and then optimizing information development of multiple formats and media” (pg. 55).
- This statement not only aligns with the knowledge management aspect, but also with regard to the training aspect.
- Optimizing our information for multiple formats hones in on this idea of enterprise mobile and writing for mobile device – not just shrinking our information to fit on mobile devices
- We are also there for the customer – whether it is for an internal customer or an external customer.
Ultimately this all aligns with content development, as shown in the graphic above. It should be our goal to customize our content not only for formats and media – but for our audience. Dicks (2010) calls out the value of our role in the following four categories: “cost reduction, cost avoidance, revenue enhancement, intangible contributions” (p. 61). But I bring us back to my original example in my own situation – of too many cooks in the kitchen and refining the role of technical communication within organizations.
For example, the Information Technology Help Desk was at one point responsible for preparing our department intranet pages. The content, design, and layout was all brutal. In an effort to formalize this channel as a communication tool, I focused heavily on design and updating the pages so they seemed more accessible and inviting to staff. Unfortunately, I would say that this idea / change in ownership of job duties has been a constant struggle. At one point this group never wanted to give anything up, and yet at time if it’s not perfect it is used as an excuse to pass the buck off onto someone else.
So while we can theoretically lay out for management on how technical communication can provide value to the organization, how do we show value to our colleagues who might be more concerned that we are stepping on their toes?
Dicks, S. (2010). Digital Literacy for Technical Communication. In R. Spilka (Ed.), The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work, (pp. 51-81). New York: Taylor & Francis.
I think that I am getting the hang of this “rhetoric of technology” now since Clark simplified it to “technology and rhetoric are…co-bedded in culture,” and that for technology to be a “real cultural phenomenon,” people have to start bickering over it (Clark, 2010, p. 85). Additionally, it has been drilled into me that all these technology analyzing tools are based on society and culture and its users, which in combination also plays a part in the workplace. I will be discussing my role as a contractor in the workplace with this cultural theory in mind.
According to Clark, who invokes Johnson to confirm that
[T]echnological design and implementation that places users, rather than systems, at the center of our focus, and that we have an ethical and cultural responsibility to learn and argue to collaborative approaches… (Clark, 2010, p. 93).
For my last assignment, we did just that. We had our users in mind – new people who had no training, and who were from another country – when we were told to update our content managing system (CMS) to be more user friendly, go through all documentation to either update or delete them, and to create new documentation if the documentation did not exist. The CMS was cleaned up, updated to have visuals such as icons and graphics, and had proper meta tags added each document to make them easier to find in searches.
While this fury of work was being done, we joked about how we are providing so much helpful documentation that we would all be out of a job. And we were. Once everything had been completed and tested over a month in another country, all of us contractors were given notice that all of our jobs were now going overseas, and that those people overseas would be actual, hired employees. But everyone here had a job to do, even though we knew we were putting ourselves out of a job. Thus, when Hart-Davidson wrote, “[T]he combined threat that many technical communicators have confronted firsthand: outsourcing and work fragmentation,” I could only nod in agreement and wonder what I have gotten myself into, again (2010, p. 141).
To make matters worse, when Hart-Davidson goes on to say that “users providing their own help content…actually present dramatic new roles for technical communicators to play,” I wanted to throw this book because he never explains which new roles that these were going to be (2010, p. 141). I do not want generics, I want real answers. Maybe being a consultant or contractor is a dream job for many, but when you have a family to take care of, bills to pay, and you are the nearly the sole wage earner, hearing that you only get so much time at a job is scary. In my opinion, it is sad that companies seem to only care about the bottom line and their customers, but not their employees. Employees used to be the ones valued, and their worth was rewarded with stock options, PTO, health benefits, etc. No more. The companies’ real value is information, which Hart-Davidson writes is the true “valuable commodity” (2010, p. 128).
Now, at another assignment, which I already know the exact date when to start packing up my stuff, I have tried to get them to be more efficient with their workflow, work instructions, and etc. But just as culture and society have certain conventions, rules, and guidelines, so does this workplace too. I have already been told that once a decision on how the templates were made, no further changes will ever be made. I understand that with global companies, they have to think globally, and when there is a change to the standard, then that change needs to be reflected in every document, which costs money. But working with these old templates creates extra work, as some things are duplicated, and there are fields on there that no longer apply, in my opinion. I believe that these templates could be edited for efficiency, remove confusion for the user, and look more professional, but the “power relationship encoded” in this template has limited what I can do with it (Salvo & Rosinski, 2010, p. 103).
Additionally, there is an issue of storing these documents and templates. It has been repeated throughout this course so far that there is a need for companies to store their information for others to find it. I brought this issue up in two meetings at work, with the reply of being that they know it is a problem, but it is not important enough to deal with. I would have to disagree. Even Salvo and Rosinki remark that “information that cannot be easily retrieved when needed is useless” (2010, p. 103). And if information is a “valuable commodity,” as already referenced above, then there is a problem that needs to be resolved sooner, rather than later (Hart-Davidson, 2010, p. 128).
In the end, while I learned that technology is based in culture and society, there are limits, rules, and guidelines that I have to play by. Some companies may be open for change; for others, they are more ridged due to political concerns. Many contractors understand that have an ethical and cultural responsibility to their client, even if it is to their detriment. While some scholars are hopeful that there will be plenty of jobs for technical communicators, some are not, and this theme continues to be weaved in and out of texts, which makes me hope that when I am on my deathbed, I can look back and know that I made the correct choice. Otherwise, dang it.
Clark, D. (2010). Shaped and Shaping Tools In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 93). New York, NY: Routledge.
Hart-Davidson, W. (2010). Introduction In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 93). New York, NY: Routledge.
Salvo, M.J. & Rosinski, P. (2010). Introduction In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 93). New York, NY: Routledge.
Barry Thatcher’s article, Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures, brings up one of the most important, but rarely discussed aspect of digital communication: cultural differences. No matter where we are in the world, we can access the Internet from the same types of devices, but not always the same websites. Or, sometimes one website is adapted to display differently according to region and native language. We are using the same Internet, but not always viewing, absorbing and processing the same things.
I work for an ecommerce web design company that is based in the US but works with several contractors in Pakistan and India. Aside from working with people overseas on a regular basis, we get clients from all over the world. Lately, I have been noticing that a lot of our clients want bi or multilingual websites, which, from a coding and design standpoint, can be complicated and ultimately expensive. Additionally, a lot of the major ecommerce platforms we work with will allow multi-language support, but only with a lot of custom coding, which, again, can be quite expensive.
One of the most complex problems we have yet to find a solution to is the ability to create a bi or multilingual ecommerce store with the checkout process to be in the language of the shoppers’ choosing. Yes, even with custom-coding and advanced functionality, it is incredibly difficult to translate the checkout process in a language other than English with a hosted ecommerce platform.
Thatcher’s article had me thinking of this particular issue because we are able to translate every part of the online shopping experience except for the most important: the checkout. This is where actual money is exchanged and people want this to feel the most comfortable, but we are unable to do that for them. I’ve been doing some research on this for work and I have discovered that many international shoppers simply accept this as the norm, but I feel like it is unfair for this to be so.
Ultimately, cultural differences on the Internet have led me to contemplate the benefits and downfalls of ignoring cultural norms an instead create a universal, digital culture with its own set of beliefs, language and functions. Some may argue that this already exists, but as Thatcher has us realize, we have only been viewing the Internet through a North American lens. The Internet is different everywhere and we need to take that into consideration more often.