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Siestas by the sea and the importance of empathy

This summer, I briefly worked with the captain of ARC Almirante Padilla FM-51 during a multi-national exercise. During some town time, he told us that Colombia’s coastal cities, like his hometown of Cartagena, take mid-day siestas and businesses are often closed. Unfortunately, the Colombian navy does not siesta during lunch. The captain said sometimes this is frustrating when he wants to use his lunch break to run errands but all the local businesses are closed. He also pointed out that Colombia’s inland cities, like its capital Bogota, don’t siesta either.

ARC Padilla

ARC Padilla FM-51

Others asked the ship captain about Colombian food and the weather. No one asked about business communication practices. I don’t know how much value the Colombians place on e-mail communication, but is likely not as high as Americans. In Barry Thatcher’s (2010) essay “Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures,” he pointed out Colombia is the only Latin American country that considers e-mail as an “in-writing” agreement and only if the senders and receivers can be verified (p. 182).

This week’s readings in Rachel Spilka’s (2010) anthology Digital Literacy for Technical Communication reminded me of working with the Colombian captain for several reasons.

  • Bernadette Longo (2010) noted in her essay “Human + Machine Culture” that “people value human relations. We want to feel connected to other people” (p. 156). She also observed that “since the 1980s, our interactions with people have become more and more mediated by electronic devices” (p. 156). I am glad my colleagues and I took the opportunity to have a face-to-face conversation. After reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology & Less From Each Other, interpersonal communication skills are not something to take for granted.

 

  • Thatcher (2010) pointed out that Americans tend to assume the rest of the world operates the same way we do; however, many countries, especially Latin American ones, tend to value interpersonal values more than we do (pp. 170-171). Hearing that some countries still value siestas is a good reminder not to take everything so seriously.

I am glad my colleagues and I took the opportunity to learn more about Colombia because it added to my “empathy bank,” so to speak. Ann M. Blakeslee (2010) conducted case studies with five technical communicators for her essay “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age.” She learned only half of the writers were actually able to communicate with their audiences to learn what their preferences are (p. 208). The other writers were prevented from having direct contact with their customers and only received second-hand information from other company employees (p. 208).

In addition to direct customer communication, the technical writers used personas, trouble call logs, and user reviews and feedback forums to perform audience analyses (Blakeslee, 2010, pp. 207-210). These practices also contribute to the overall empathy levels of the technical communicators Blakeslee (2010) surveyed. I think Steve Krug (2014), who wrote Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability said it best: “Empathy is virtually a professional requirement for usability work” (loc. 2,627).

So my goals this week are:

  1. Take opportunities to communicate face-to-face instead of through electronic means.
  2. Continue to use empathy in my decision making.
  3. Nap.

Digital Literacy across cultures

I know that I’ve mentioned this example before in reference to global culture, but it directly relates to this week’s reading about digital literacy across cultures. I was fortunate to be part of a project that had stakeholders in the Midwest, Ireland, and India. The main purpose was to create a system and interface that would search and analyze… specific data. My role was to create a user-guide to help people utilize the system. There were several obstacles that needed to be resolved during my involvement in the project.

I worked closely with the primary tester, and she would use the system, try to stress it, and also validate the results of each test search. She logged all issues on the project SharePoint site. She recalled early in the project that the form originally classified the issues as defects, but that needed to be changed. The India team viewed the term defects as pointing blame. They would spend days researching whether the issue was in fact a defect, or if it was a design feature that was simply not working correctly. By reclassifying it as an issue, we eliminated the idea of blame. This allowed them to spend their time fixing the issue rather than researching who was at fault.

There were status calls twice a week, which allowed the project manager to collect status updates from each area, and also helped clarify what each person’s role was and the expectations for the week. I’m not sure if these calls were done for convenience, accountability, or because of deeper cultural reasons like Thatcher described in this week’s reading. I do know that it seemed to help people stay on task and understand their responsibilities.

We also encountered issues with the design and layout of the program. I found it difficult to use because most of the fields you entered data into or selected criteria from were not labeled. The lead tester had the same complaints, but was told that it was too late to make those kinds of changes. Part of the job of the user guide was to explain how to use the system, and part was to help American and European users overcome the awkward and confusing layout and interface. I wish I knew if it was a cultural difference, or if it was just a poorly designed interface.

I guess I’ve always taken general usability for granted, but this week’s readings by Thatcher and Blakeslee have made me realize that convenient usability is a factor of our cultural experiences, and that a different culture would have different experiences to draw from. What seems logical and convenient to me might seem confusing or awkward to someone from another culture. The areas of the internet that I frequent seem to be tailored to an American, or at least and English speaking user, but I would really be interested in seeing the potential layout and organizational difference of a website designed with a different culture in mind.

Ishii’s research about mobile phone usage was very interesting. It seemed like a well-done study, and it is one that I would appreciate seeing carried out again. He might be able to find stronger correlations today than he was able to when the study was originally carried out. I think he would find the mobile phone usage breakdown would still be similar between home, work, and away from work. Expected differences would be the level of usage for the average person, especially teenagers, and I would also predict a difference in the social skills among mobile phone users. It is easy for me to make predictions based on my own observations, but I really would like to see the research.