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The Unpredictable Skill Set of a Technical Communicator

Technical communicators are far from being confined to the word processor as their primary tool for producing texts. For as many different job titles and responsibilities that can fall under the umbrella of technical communication (UX designer, copy editor, social media manager), so are there an abundance of tools and technologies that are used in different combinations in the daily workflow of a technical communicator. When asked in a survey to identify the types of writing most often produced in their professional lives, technical communicators named tasks that require completely different sets of skills and technology to accomplish, for example, email, web sites, texting, infographics and press releases (Blythe, Lauer, Curran, 2104). Each format of communication has its own unique set of circumstances surrounding it. Is the audience public or private? Is the standard tone of voice casual or formal? Are there additional technical skills that are required to complete the task like a knowledge of code, or an image editing software?

An example of this phenomenon is the freelance technical communicator who is featured in Stacy Pigg’s 2014 study, Coordinating Constant Invention: Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work. Dave works remotely out of a coffee shop, composing posts for his blog on the topic of fatherhood. In the time that it takes him to compose his blog post (roughly one hour) Dave switches back and forth between several social media platforms that he uses as content reference, networking tools, or to publish his work. For him, and likely for many modern technical communicators, the number of different tools to master increases exponentially when considering not only the service being used to create content, but also all of the other tools that are used to gather, organize, support and distribute the content.

This huge spread of trending tools poses a challenge to educators. How can a professor go about teaching future technical communicators the tools they need for the trade, when the careers available to graduates are so diverse and the tool kit is so rapidly expanding? As noted by Blythe, Lauer and Curran, though the alumni that they surveyed were so disparate in their current job titles, they were all chosen to take part in the survey because they shared a very specific program of study – technical communication. In some ways, the fact that the students went on from receiving their identical diplomas to hold such different job is a testament to the power of a broad education that covers the concepts more than the details of specific software or workflows.

That being said, educators also must embrace uses of media that have historically been thought of as recreational, such as texting or connecting on social network sites. These instruments of communication are more and more being used in professional settings. Just because a student has a personal twitter account doesn’t mean that she has the skill to effectively tweet to a company’s audience. An educator should embrace the new media as it comes, while simultaneously exploring alongside her students how these inventions can be used to communicate professionally. Just like Sherry Turkle describes in her book Alone Together how she bravely brought up Chatroulette on the screen in one of her lectures after she had first learned of its existence from one of her students. She was able to take a new technology that had previously fit squarely in the recreational world of her students and she formed an intelligent discussion around the meaning of the new social platform. (Of course this may be a poor example as I can’t imagine Chatroulette ever being a useful tool for professional technical communicators. Never say never?)

New ways to communicate are bubbling to the surface at an unprecedented rate, and technical communicators are tasked to incorporate them into their broader communication strategies. Despite a shared program title on their diplomas, technical communicators are finding a broad range of professions, each with its own ecology of new media tools. Educators are stuck trying to strike a balance between teaching broadly applicable theory and bringing specific trending technologies into the classroom in order to discuss professional-level communication through typically informal formats of communication. Through studies like the survey in the Blythe, Lauer and Curran essay, at least instructors of technical communication will have more data on current professional practices. Students graduating from a technical communication program will have to be prepared to wear many hats.

Wiki… Wikipe… Wikipedia!

Thriving online.  This brief, but astute concept really makes me step back and re-read it over and over again to really try and understand if it is even possible to thrive online.  In this day in age, when we are so seemingly inundated with information – how can we possible muddle through it all?

In reading the Net Smart How to Thrive Online by Howard Rheingold, there were two primary components that I really honed in on.  One of the primary concepts was this idea around attention literacy, which the phenomenon of multi-tasking and online activities in search of information.

For example as I was writing this blog post for this week, I was looking up a few thoughts on my end idea and while I had those pages up on Google Chrome, I went searching for what a used pop-up camper might cost (I just in fact had a conversation where I was thinking about possibly purchasing one from a friend).  I then went back to find more resources for my post, but then I started wondering – what if the camper is dingy inside?  Can I remodel a pop-up camper?  So I went online hunting to find if others had this same thought and what ideas they might have had in redoing their pop-up camper (as you’ll find below – there are some neat ideas out there).  I finally told myself I had to stop and get to writing my blog post or I was not going to get it done – but then I had to wonder about how I would pull the camper since my vehicle is clearly in a dark place, I would need something different in order to make that happen…

Scattered thoughts (Source: Ironically from a site called Wikimedia)

This image – clearly marks this idea of gaining proper attention towards our online use.  But I think, even in my brief example, we can see how having an information genius at our fingertips can really have an impact on this natural “task switching” tendency we have as humans (Rheingold, 2014).

The second concept was equally as intriguing for me to ponder and that was around this idea of “crap detection” (Rheingold, 2014) on the internet.  As Rheingold put it, the rule of thumb for crap detection “is to make skepticism your default” (p. 77).

crap detector
Source: Natalie Dee

But as I read through these thoughts, one of the most interesting correlations I had was this idea of Wikipedia and interchanging that with crap detection.  Now I am assuming everyone reading this will know what Wikipedia is, but if not, it is essentially an online free encyclopedia tool.  One of the arguments that Rheingold makes in his book, is the idea of creating and developing online collaborative tools and social communities.  In fact, Rheingold goes on to say that “web-based tools are particularly important because wikis enable people to collaborate in ways that challenge basic assumptions underlying modern economic theory and contradict older stereotypes regarding human motivation to cooperate.”

This is even more thought provoking as we think about how Wikipedia is often viewed – especially in academia.  Without a doubt, Wikipedia is one of the most accessed online tools for gathering information, but we often here from professors that in academia world, Wikipedia is not a credible source.  In fact, even Wikipedia says that they are not as they state on their site, “citation of Wikipedia in research papers may be considered unacceptable, because Wikipedia is not considered a credible or authoritative source.”  One of the underlying concerns is the amount of editing rights people have – essentially anyone can go in there and edit it.

But what if it were a credible and authoritative source of information?  According to Rheingold, this online social network can in fact be a greater asset in terms of collective action.  And let’s not forget about the Encyclopedia books we had for year’s growing up.  I think I had the same Encyclopedia set in my house for over 15 years.  How is that useful and correct information?

But the big question is in the long-term, will Wikipedia become an established tool / credible source that can be used to collect accurate information?  Or do you think we will not ever feel like this would be a credible source from a social network perspective?

Content Management Systems, I use those!

I like the definition of Content Management that Spilka provides in Chapter 5. Content Management is a set of practices for the handling of information, including how it is created, stored, retrieved, formatted and styled for delivery. It usually has the following four goals: Distribute tasks and responsibilities among members, Author and store content that enable multiple-audience adaptation, Author and store content to permit multiple output and Author and store content that allow for reuse by multiple organizations. Spilka also recommends creating CM as a separate discipline and teach to other technical communicators (Spilka, 2010, pgs 130-131). This definition really is what I do on a daily basis in my current position of QA Specialist, who is also responsible for the majority of customer educational resources for our Home Care product line.

Where I work currently, we use a few different content management systems, most of which were created by in-house staff for our use. The one that looks the most like this definition is our SIETE product. This is the product that we use to track the tasks being completed by the developers, that guide our release notes and user guides, as well as our Knowledge Base which houses the release notes, user guides and other customer-facing educational resources. I was not included in any of the design aspects of this product, it does work nicely for our customers.



The image above is an example of our customer facing portion of SIETE. This is accessed through the application and the content visible on the right-hand side is content specific based on the page the accessed the Help from. In addition, there are additional materials that the user may find useful based on this page. It would include FAQs, User Guide Pages and Videos that were created. This can be updated by our staff immediately if issus or corrections need to be made. This page really encompasses goals 2, 3, and 4. It allows for multiple audience adaptation, permit multiple outputs (html, videos) and reuse within and across organizations.

According to Chapter 4, we, as technical communicators, organize the written communication for future use (Spilka, 2010, pg 123). This SIETE product does assist with this. The search feature within the Customer Facing Knowledge Base will search content and tags that are added to each item. At this time tags need to be manually managed on each task, but helps with searching when the customer may not know the correct term. We can add additional terms that customer might use, even if it does not match the terminology that we use.

The image above shows that Goal 1 can also be used in our SIETE Application. There is a module called Project that has Projects, Outlines and Tasks. Each task can be assigned to a specific person and it can detail what needs to be done, when it should be done and what other assets are needed to complete the task. Often times I will spend a day or two reviewing the User Guide for changes that need to be made. Simple changes will be made immediately, but longer changes will get a task. Once all tasks are assigned I, or my supervisor, can set due dates, priorities and estimate the time to complete. As time allows, these are updated and immediately available for our customers.