Kirk St.Amant | STC Fellow
This column provides information on trends, practices, and resources for applying technical communication skills in health and medical settings. Contact the columnist, Kirk St.Amant, at email@example.com.
Health and medical content frequently covers processes for maintaining or treating one’s health. Generating this content involves health and medical subject matter experts (SMEs) providing procedural information that technical communicators develop into deliverables for different audiences. The usability of that content involves more than how well it is written. It includes how effectively individuals can perform a process based on their backgrounds and where the related activity occurs.
We usually use our own experiences to guide the instructions we create for others, and that is a problem. Providing someone with instructions about how to drive from point A to point B, for example, is generally based on how we have driven that route vs. how our audience might approach this situation. As such, we might overlook key factors like how the time of day can affect how easily you can get from point to point during a trip. Such assumptions can affect the success with which an audience performs a process.
Similar factors can affect health and medical instructions designed to maintain or restore one’s health. SMEs could provide excellent information for performing a process based on their experiences, yet these experiences could vary from those of the intended audience. These differences could affect how an audience uses those materials to perform an activity. Knowing what causes these issues can help technical communicators collaborate with SMEs to create instructional health and medical content that an audience can use more effectively. Achieving this goal often involves addressing three central factors:
First, technical communicators need to determine how well audience members understand what they are being asked to do. This involves determining if the individual has prior knowledge of the topic or prior experience performing a particular process. These factors affect how much information and what kind of information to collect from SMEs when creating materials to meet audience needs.
Comprehensibility also involves how information is delivered to help individuals understand the dynamics of a process. This can entail selecting a particular media format for sharing information to enhance comprehension. In some cases, the use of visuals or video might be a better method for presenting a process, because text alone or static images do not effectively convey concepts to certain audiences. Knowing what media format is needed can help technical communicators determine the information they need to collect from SMEs to create certain content.
Next, technical communicators must determine the kind of information individuals need to perform a process. Engaging in an activity might require certain conditions. For example, instructions stating, “First, use a blood pressure cuff and stethoscope to check your blood pressure” assume individuals know how to use these devices. If they do not, the related information is of little use, for individuals cannot perform part of the process. Alternatively, individuals might know how to perform the process but not have access to essential materials for doing so—for example, they might not have access to the stethoscope needed to check blood pressure. Again, the ability to perform the process is not manageable, for certain materials are not available.
Technical communicators need to determine these factors before producing content. They can use this knowledge when working with SMEs to document procedures. Doing so could help identify when to add certain information—as in the previous example, knowing when to provide instructions on how to use a blood pressure cuff to check one’s blood pressure. It could also include creating alternative procedures to achieve a health or medical objective, such as alternative approaches to performing a task like checking blood pressure if the audience does not have access to certain materials.
Sustainability involves how often and for how long an audience is expected to undertake an activity. The central question is, “Can an audience perform a given task repeatedly over time, or only once and under certain conditions?” Individuals might not be able to perform an activity as often or as regularly as an SME expects. This can affect the processes that individuals need to perform to achieve a health-related objective.
Treating an infection, for example, might be a process that SMEs associate with taking a relatively low dose of antibiotics repeatedly over time. If individuals cannot access antibiotics on a regular basis, however, the alternative might be to take a large dose of antibiotics at one time. By knowing what these sustainability dynamics are, technical communicators can work with SMEs to create content that addresses the realities of the audience.
Certain factors can affect how well individuals use instructional content to perform health-related processes. By understanding these factors, technical communicators can work with SMEs to create effective health and medical content for different audiences. Addressing aspects of comprehensibility, manageability, and sustainability can guide such activities and help technical communicators achieve this objective.