Three long-time STC members answer four questions about the future of technical communication
By Saul Carliner, Janice (Ginny) Redish, and Karen Schriver | STC Fellows
Editor’s Note: What has propelled technical communication to its current point and what’s on the horizon for the field?
On March 15, 2023, the three authors (all STC Fellows who have been active in research, practice, and teaching for decades) shared their thoughts In a webinar, Reflecting Backward, Thinking Forward: A Conversation About 70 Past and 70 Future Years of Technical Communication, in honor of the 70th anniversary of STC.
This is the second of two parts, transcribed from the webinar. In the previous part, the three looked backward, exploring the most important and overrated developments in the field over the past 70 years. This part looks forward, exploring concerns about and hopes for the future.
The authors have edited the transcript for length and clarity.
What is your greatest concern about the field moving forward?
Ginny: I noticed that, in response to one of the earlier questions, a webinar attendee answered “ChatGPT”; and someone just put in “AI replacing humans.” I think we have to talk about that.
ChatGPT is my answer to this question, but I could also use it as my answer to our final question about greatest hope for the future. ChatGPT and its cousins are not going to replace us, and they’re not going to do away with English. But we have to face them because they are part of the current and future reality.
AI has been around for decades. You might remember ELIZA, the old AI psychiatrist, and laugh at it. In the past, AI failed to live up to the promise of its original premise. But now ChatGPT and similar AI programs are rather amazing.
We are going to have clients and colleagues who ask, “Why can’t we just have AI write for us?” So, we have to think about—and do research on—how we can best use these AI programs. What role could or should AI have in what we do?
For example, I would be interested in asking ChatGPT to write something and then see if that gives me ideas for simplifying what I would write.
Saul: I had AI on my list because some tasks will be automated. For example, writing up reports of city council meetings could be done automatically. Everybody hates taking minutes and I expect that minutes will be generated automatically, too. But one of the problems is that AI tends to make things up when it doesn’t have the knowledge. That’s a scary part of all this.
But, rather than AI, my number one concern is this: Within the community of technical communicators, there’s fragmentation. Among people who do the kind of work that we do, not everybody identifies as a technical communicator.
That has a number of implications:
- It’s hard to get any kind of critical mass to promote the field.
- We have a lot of parallel conversations because each community comes up with their own terminology and the terminology doesn’t match. More significantly, the duplicate work slows progress rather than enhances it.
You think you’re creating something new; but guess what, it’s not new. And in fact, I would advise everyone out there: If anyone tells you that they’ve invented something new in this field, they probably just did a weak literature review!
My second major concern is the increasing disconnect between the world of practice and the world of research. The world of researchers is getting increasingly out of touch with what technical communicators do every day.
Some of the communication situations that researchers look at are not typical of work that technical communicators are likely to be doing. Researchers don’t understand the everyday work environment that practicing professionals have—the pressures, the choices available, and the trade-offs practicing professionals must make. I’ve tried to focus most of my research on what practicing professionals are really doing in their real jobs.
Academics are concerned that their research goes unvalued. But that happens for good reason: Because practitioners can’t use it. It doesn’t speak to them. It doesn’t even acknowledge them.
Karen: I’m worried about the field fragmenting into specialist camps that have little core identity. I’m sure you’ve noticed the splintering of the field around technical domains and subject matter areas, such as writing for chatbots or designing for the aerospace industry.
The specialization of the field has been both a strength and a weakness.
- On the one hand, I think specialization has encouraged technical communicators to acquire sophisticated knowledge about the fields they want to work in. And that’s given us more leverage to show our value by knowing the field like an insider.
If we’re working with chemists, we know how to evaluate the writing and design about the science of chemistry. Experts needn’t talk down to us because we’re familiar with the field’s problems and issues. We may not be an expert ourselves, but we can easily talk with them, share knowledge, and author their documents. So, in this case, specialization is a strength.
- But on the other hand, specialization can be a weakness because it can narrow our focus, make us more myopic, and limit our flexibility to pivot from one job to another. It may mean that when we jump industries, we can only edit the content rather than develop it from scratch. Employers may see us as kind of old-style translators and documenters, rather than, for example, as information designers, content managers, or UX writers.
Employers may prefer programmers who write over people trained as technical communicators. This tension makes me wonder if specialists such as programmers actually write better documents that create a better customer experience. While we might say “No,” and I think we would, many companies still privilege engineering and computer-science knowledge over customer-experience and rhetorical knowledge.
So, my concern with the field going forward is this tension between being a specialist and a generalist. How can we position ourselves in ways that we’re not just chasing trends that employers put out in their job ads? Can we be both a technical specialist and a language generalist at the same time? Put differently, can we still be an effective rhetorical generalist in a sea of technical specialists?
What is your greatest hope moving forward?
Ginny: The field has changed radically over the last 70 years.
- Think how much has changed even from the early 1980s that Karen talked about in Part 1, Looking Backward: STC members then were mostly men writing military documents. Now, we are a much more diverse community writing much more diverse types of documents, topics, and media.
- And another change over the last 70 years is that the primary medium today is digital rather than print.
In the digital world, we have moved from user experience to customer experience to service design and to the new term “design thinking,” which privileges design in a way that can leave us out.
My hope is that we will make sure that we are there and that we are there throughout the process. And I hope we will work more on a strategic level.
Content strategy has become a new thing in the last decade. Technical communicators are the right people to be content strategists because the questions at that level are “What content?” “What content system?” “What style guide?” “What voice and tone guide?” Those are our questions.
STC has, for a long time, been a wonderful umbrella, including people in all the specialties with the commonality that it’s our job to help people communicate. It’s my hope that we embrace all the specialties, the document types, the topics, and the media, and do it in a user-centered, customer-centered way.
Karen: My biggest hope is that we continue to support professional development and research. STC has done a great deal over the years to support and disseminate research. We’ve all benefited across industries and even across the world.
Research is going to be very important as we face the challenges ahead. Let me mention three challenges: generative AI, which we’ve already mentioned; the carbon footprint of digital products; and ethics and social justice in technical communication products.
- First, the role of generative AI in tech comm. Some people worry that language models such as ChatGPT are coming for our jobs. They see whole sectors of the field being wiped out.
Procedural instructions may, in fact, be the lowest hanging fruit. But there’ll be many opportunities to leverage language generation technology. That may change our identity a little bit or maybe even a lot. But it will also free us up for more creative and strategic analysis. Research can play a big role there.
- A second challenge is to create content in ways that will result in a smaller carbon footprint. Did you know that different ways of expressing the same digital content use different amounts of electricity?
A Technical Communication article by Alisa Bonsignore offers a tutorial on how to calculate how much energy you’re using. She argues that when we become experts in the sustainability of our content, we will both help the planet and position ourselves as valuable business assets. Again, here’s an opportunity for research.
- A third big challenge is the crucial role of ethics and social justice in the products we create. Whether we’re designing to influence people’s understanding of climate change or designing health information for older immigrants, we will need to think harder about how to make language plain and accessible to more people. And that will press us to develop better and more inclusive models of audience.
I predict that these research issues and others will help sustain our field and show our value. Academic institutions and professional organizations like STC will play a vital role in helping us imagine and reimagine the possibilities for the next 70 years.
Saul: One of the big challenges that we’ve had—not just in the pandemic, but over the last 20 years—is the internet and people moving online.
It’s reduced interest in local professional activities. For example, many of our STC chapters have not been able to meet as often as they did in the past, a phenomenon that predates the pandemic. This phenomenon is not unique to STC. It’s one I see in most professional organizations and not just in the US. I see it in Canada, Europe, and Asia. People turn to the internet for a lot of the information and discussions that they used to go to meetings for. That’s been a problem.
One of the fundamental questions we used to ask before the pandemic was, “Are virtual experiences as good as face-to-face ones?” In the world of education where I do much of my research, the conclusions are that the two are the same: A weak course in the classroom will be equally weak online, and a strong class in the classroom will be equally strong online. And personally, I love the live virtual experience. I’ve been teaching this way since 1998 and it’s actually my favorite way to teach.
But little to no energy was expended studying the value of the in-person experience. Through the pandemic, educators realized it’s really important for creating relationships. More than anything, professional organizations are about relationships. It’s through those relationships and informal conversations that people have with each other that we learn a lot of incredibly valuable things.
I remember conversations I had with Ginny almost 40 years ago. I carry those lessons to this day. I remember sitting with Karen at one of her first dinners at the STC banquet, back in, let’s just say the 1980s. I remember that was what got her really started on her 1989 article, which became a landmark and that, in turn, led to her 1997 book, as I understand it.
What’s been really heartening over the past six months as the pandemic controls have been lightened, in-person experiences are back in vogue in a way they haven’t been in years. For example, almost every in-person event that I’ve had the privilege of attending has either sold out or broken its previous record.
Getting back to being in-person is really important because that will lead to a renaissance of our professional communities.
For a list of relevant references and resources on technical communication, see the bibliography compiled by Karen Schriver at Ginny Redish’s website: https://redish.net/wp-content/uploads/2023_Resources_about_technical_communication.pdf
We thank Nicky Bleiel for chairing the STC 70th anniversary task force, inviting us to do the webinar, and moderating our discussion. We also thank Erin Gallalee for technical support of the webinar. And we thank all the STC members and others who spent time with us, listening and contributing to the webinar.
|Karen Schriver is a researcher and consultant on information design, plain language, and professional communication. She is an STC fellow who is contributing to a new ISO standard for plain language and document design. Contact: email@example.com, https://www.karenschriverassociates.com/|
|Janice (Ginny) Redish is a “semi-retired” consultant in content strategy, plain language, and user experience. She is an STC Fellow and recipient of several STC awards. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org, https://redish.net.|
|Saul Carliner is a Professor of Educational Technology at Concordia University and a Fellow, past president, and long-term volunteer of STC. Contact: email@example.com.|