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Looking at Digital Literacy Through Different Lenses

Research Participant Lens

During my senior year in college, I worked with the electronic company, Magnavox, as a human participant in several research projects they were conducting to get a better feel for what their audience needed/desired with regard to installation instructions.  In each instance, I would be put into a room, alone, with their boxed product and asked to simply set it up based on the instructions in the box.  I was also asked to make edits to the instructions that I felt would help me, the user, to understand them better.  At the time, I was in it for the $100 paycheck I received after each task was finished.  However, looking back I realize that I played an important role in their consumer feedback!

In Chapter 8 of “Digital Literacy for Technical Communication” (Spilka 2010), author Ann Blakeslee discusses the subject of, “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age,” by conducting five case studies with technical writers from three different companies.

The findings from the five case studies, as a whole, support a problem-solving and contextualized approach to audience in digital environments in technical communication.  In particular, they suggest that while technical communicators may not know their exact audiences, the complexity of the product and the typical environments in which the product is used provide them with guidance in understanding their prospective readers.  Digital audience adaptation, therefore, requires a problem-solving approach that allows writers to identify and analyze their audiences and to learn about their audiences’ contexts and uses for documentation (p. 204).

Her research showed that, “writers have always used a set of heuristics and strategies for learning about their audiences and addressing them specifically.  (Her) findings support the continued use of such heuristics and suggest some specific ones for learning about and addressing digital audiences…some of (which) depend on or are facilitated by digital technologies.” These include:

    • targeting specific users and situations as a way to respond to and address audience needs;
    • developing personas;
    • Interacting with users;

Returning to my experiences with Magnavox, I can see that they put the first heuristic into practice.  However, the last three were not applicable/necessary.  Once I began my work of assembling and wiring the electronic devices, I was left alone (watched through a two-way window) and no help was offered.  I also did not receive any response to my feedback from those conducting the experiment.  As a matter of fact, I was instructed to put my feedback in a box on the table and leave the room when finished.  I picked up my check from the receptionist on my way out.  My only “response” from Magnavox was when I was contacted and asked to participate in the next round of research (I always assumed that meant I did well and my feedback was helpful).

Looking through this lens, I see the importance of giving feedback as a customer.  I like the idea that my voice will be heard, and more so, that someone may actually be listening.

Technical Writer Lens

Just a year after my research work with Magnavox, I began my own career as a Technical Writer for the small water heater company that I have written about several times this semester.  At that time, we didn’t have online documentation (2001), but as the writer of their print documentation, I often felt the need for audience feedback.  Much like Blakeslee’s case study writers from Tax Soft and Secure Net, my company prevented me “from having direct contact with…customers” (p. 208).  Most of my feedback came from the customer service representatives who would field calls from the (usually irate) customer and pass it down to me.  As case study participant, Amanda, said, “…we have to deal with it after the fact and so basically we have to find out from other people that we failed in order to succeed later” (p. 209).

I am not sure if I have shared this before, but my husband currently works for this company at which I was employed in 2001-2002.  It is no longer the small water heater company it once was as it was purchased about 10 years ago by the largest water heater manufacturer in the world, and now employs eight technical writers across the United States.  My husband is the Engineer/Manager to which the four writers at his facility report.  Of course, him being the “boss” keeps me from being able to return to work there as a technical writer (can you even imagine working for your spouse?), however, it also allows me to stay informed and have insight on the way things have changed since I worked for them as their only writer 16-17 years ago. In discussing this chapter with him, I asked whether the company had gone to any kind of digital communication.  He told me that they have, but only in the form of a searchable PDF file of the use and care manuals and installation instructions on their website.  None of those are set up in a way where the “user can access and go directly to the parts pertaining to them” (p. 205) or use them as “walk-throughs” (p. 206).  My husband also sits on the board and is acting Chairman of the ASHRAE (The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) committee, and, with further questioning, he reminded me that the safety standards (such as ANSI and CSA) require that certain warning labels pertaining to appliances be visible at all times in a written format.  That means that the documents cannot be easily taken apart and sectioned in a type of digital, click-what-you-need format.  If the information appears without a certain safety label in close proximity, the company stands liable should any harm be done or death occur.

While my husband’s company does not put a lot of written literature online due to standards issues, they do produce instructional videos such as this one A.O. Smith Water Heater Pressure Relief Valve for consumers looking to better understand or make small repairs to their water heater.  In fact, they have an entire website dedicated to water heater education called A.O. Smith University. They also have a section where they do live, recorded videos and they allow customers to text them questions during the show to be answered live.  Not exactly top of the line in digital literacy since the customer would have to know when the live show is being held and tune in at just that time to have his questions answered, but it is a start.

Looking through this lens, I see the challenges some companies and writers face when trying to keep up with the ever advancing technology and digital literacy.

Consumer Lens

As a consumer in the digital world, I like instant gratification.  Last week, I received an automated text message at midnight that I was almost out of data on my cell-phone.  How can that be?  The bill just cycled!  Several years ago, I would have placed a phone call to my cell phone provider the next morning and discussed the issue/options.  However, for this instance, I grabbed my iPad at 12:04 am and went to the Verizon app where I instantly began an online chat with customer service.  The representative was able to direct me to the portion of the app where I could see my usage where I realized that I had done a 5-hour live Facebook video the night before while on data.  OOPS.  Regardless, I chatted with him for over an hour while watching Criminal Minds on Hulu and painting my fingernails. I also made a bowl of noodles and called (loudly) for the dog who went outside at one point and hadn’t returned.  As the consumer in this situation, I preferred that hour long chat to a 15-20 minute phone call because it was convenient.  At the end, I received a customer satisfaction survey.  I marked each item accordingly and went back to watching my show on Hulu with a new, unlimited data plan for my next oopsie.

Looking through this lens, I certainly appreciate a heavy online, night or day, presence from the companies with which I do business.  I see the importance of understanding digital literacy and of a company putting it into practice.

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