Developments in Technical Communication: Journal Articles Between 2006 and 2010
Of the various academic and professional communication disciplines, technical communication should be the one that is flourishing. Technology increasingly pervades our personal and professional lives. It solves some of our problems and satisfies some of our needs. At the same time, technology creates new problems, incites new needs, and changes many of our habits. It is hard to imagine life without technology, but technology does not necessarily speak for itself.
It is as hard to think of technology without communication as it is to think of communication without technology. Technical communication is the discipline where the two phenomena meet. In the past, they seemed to meet as separate entities: The technical communicator was there to explain technological inventions to the public of users. The technical communicator could afford to be simply a technologically savvy writer. Nowadays, the two tend to be more integrated. As a result, the technical communicator has to gain expertise in many different areas.
To further explore the various aspects of the relationship between communication and technology, I went through the past five volumes of Technical Communication. I was curious to see what kinds of general topics would emerge from this exercise.
Design of Documents, Web Sites, and Presentation Slides
The quality, effectiveness, and usability of means of communication is one of the recurring topics in the journal, but it is not nearly as prominent as I would have expected. The classical document design problem of tailoring texts to the needs and preferences of readers is by no means solved, but the research attention to this problem seems to have decreased. This is particularly true for paper documents. A little more attention is paid to Web site design, often with emphasis on other variables than in document design research (e.g., attracting visitors or personalizing information). A special issue was devoted to accessibility. Another development is the growing research attention to PowerPoint or other presentation slides. Many articles in the past five years were devoted to the design of effective slides. Technical Communication may even be considered to play a leading role regarding that particular topic.
In addition to the verbal characteristics of documents, Web sites, or presentations, several articles focus on the visual aspects of communication such as color use, fonts, illustrations, and graphics. I hope these articles will form the foundation on which to build more empirical research.
Design Processes: Writing, Editing, Evaluating, and Reviewing
Traditionally, there has been a strong process orientation in the technical communication literature. Instead of exclusively focusing on the effects communication variables may have on users, many articles investigate the way communication means are (or can be) developed. Some articles investigate how communication means are designed in organizational contexts, for instance focusing on the collaboration between writers and engineers. Other articles discuss or investigate the strategies that can be used to inform design processes, such as research or analysis in the predesign phase or expert-focused or user-focused formative evaluation. Examples of the former are the use of narratives or scenarios. Examples of the latter are heuristic evaluation, think-aloud usability testing, and the use of eyetracking. Other contributions focus on the practices of editing and reviewing in design processes.
Technology and Communication
Many contributions focus strongly on the technological side of communication. Technology provides new opportunities for communicating with audiences, for instance by using the potential benefits of games, virtual reality, or interactivity. Technical communicators are particularly well equipped to advise on the use of technology in professional communication, and it is important to keep up with the latest developments. Technology also impacts how technical communicators work. One can think of developments in information architecture, single sourcing, content management, and wikis.
Education and Training
Much attention has also been paid to academic curricula in technical communication. A special issue was devoted to the topic of assessment in academic programs. Other articles focused on the content of undergraduate and graduate programs, or on the pros and cons of particular training strategies. One article addressed the skills and competencies that technical communicators need to be successful in job applications. It would be interesting to further explore the skills and competencies required (not only according to employers but also according to experienced technical communicators) and use them to evaluate technical communication programs. This corresponds to the issue of professional expertise: Which skills and competencies make someone an outstanding technical communication professional?
International and Intercultural Communication
Many articles address the issue of international and/or intercultural communication. Technical communication does not stop or start at the borders of the western world. It is a worldwide phenomenon. Articles have been devoted to intercultural comparisons, but also to gaining a deeper understanding of technical communication in nonwestern cultures. Interestingly, the awareness has grown that important intercultural differences also occur within the western countries.
Recently, several authors have drawn attention to the importance of legal issues for technical communicators. This has become especially important since the rise of digital media. Copyright issues have never been as prominent as today, when copying and distributing information have become easier than ever. A special issue in the third issue of this year's volume provides a great overview of legal issues that may be relevant for technical communicators, and places them in an international context.
The last broad category of articles that I would like to mention draws attention to various issues that are not at the core of being a technical communicator but that may nonetheless affect their work. Some articles address the organizational contexts in which technical communicators work. Others discuss societal or professional developments that may be relevant for technical communicators, such as offshoring and outsourcing, sustainability, or the rise of open source software.
Looking Back and Looking Ahead
The categories of articles described above demonstrate the diversity in our field. I must acknowledge that there have been really great contributions that do not fit in well in the categories I mentioned. One was a special issue on qualitative research, which drew attention to the importance of research in general and qualitative research approaches in particular. Many articles in other journal issues have also demonstrated the importance of research for the advancement of technical communication. Research in all categories is of vital importance for the development of the academic and professional discipline.
In This Issue
Because of the number of pages in the third issue of this volume (the special issue about legal issues in a global context), this last issue of 2010 contains only two articles. In the first article, David Dayton and Keith Hopper report on a survey of STC members regarding their use of and experiences with single sourcing and content management. In the second article, Lisa Meloncon, Erin Haynes, Megan Varelmann, and Lisa Groh report on a research project aimed at formulating guidelines for educational Web sites for children. They combined a literature review with a usability test of an educational Web site and compiled a list of guidelines for navigation, appearance, and content.