58.2, May 2011

Editorial: Exploring the Borders of Technical Communication: Human-Computer Interaction

Exploring the Borders of Technical Communication: Human-Computer Interaction

Menno D.T. de Jong, Editor

In my editorial of this year's February issue, I discussed the relationship between technical communication and corporate and organizational communication. It is not hard to distinguish the two disciplines from each other, but I hope to have demonstrated that they may fruitfully complement each other. In this editorial, I would like to explore the borders with a field much closer to home: human-computer interaction.

This is the perfect time for me to make this comparison, as I am just back home from attending two conferences: the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Vancouver, and STC's Technical Communication Summit in Sacramento. Both conferences were very informative and stimulating, and can be expected to more or less reflect the way the respective fields are developing.


An obvious area of overlap between the two disciplines is usability. Usability seems to have developed into a separate discipline, with its own association (Usability Professionals’ Association) and its own journal (Journal of Usability Studies), but it has also remained one of the key concepts both in technical communication and in human-computer interaction.

I have noticed, however, that the link between technical communication and usability may not be clear to everyone. In the past half year I received questions from potential authors and reviewers about the suitability of manuscripts about usability for the journal. Apparently some academics and practitioners do not see usability as one of the central concepts of technical communication, or do not see technical communication as one of the leading disciplines when it comes to usability. They are wrong. In the interface between technology and people usability is by definition an essential concept, and many fruitful contributions to the discussion of usability and usability evaluation methods originate from the technical communication literature.

Essentially, the same developments in usability and usability evaluation methodology can be seen in technical communication and human-computer interaction. Think-aloud usability testing and heuristics are prominent evaluation approaches, although there is a growing interest in methodological research putting the current methods to the test. Scenario approaches and personas are increasingly used to optimize the usability of documents and interfaces. The benefits of eye-tracking are explored in various directions.

A possible difference in approach involves the evaluation object. Compared to human-computer interaction, technical communication researchers pay more attention to the textual and visual content of applications. And of course, the evaluation of paper documents is also relevant within technical communication research. As such it also builds on the insights and methodology developed in the field of document design.

Technological Developments vs. Effective Use of Technology

A difference of emphasis can be found in the way technological developments are approached. In human-computer interaction, there is relatively much attention for the many different ways in which information and communication technologies can be used in human life. I was impressed by the variety of topics that are addressed nowadays by human-computer interaction researchers. Almost every aspect of human life (and death) can be linked to the present or future use of computers. Technical communication seems to focus less strongly on the frontiers of technological developments, and more on the effective use of technology.

In addition, the attention for writing and editing and the professional orientation, which I also mentioned in my editorial about corporate and organizational communication, appear to be distinctive features of technical communication compared to human-computer interaction.

In this Issue

All three articles in this issue focus on issues of visual design. In the first article, Luc Desnoyers proposes a taxonomy of visuals in science communication. He argues that the terminology used for the various options to visualize information is ambiguous and therefore develops a more univocal system of possible visuals. In the second article, Chien-Ching Lee analyzes students’ PowerPoint handouts, focusing on the quality of the visual information as such and in relation to the textual information. In the third article, Wouter Alberts and Thea van der Geest present the results of an empirical study into the effects of color on the perceived trustworthiness of corporate Web sites in three different sectors.

Each year, an independent jury of three researchers and practitioners selects one outstanding article and up to three distinguished articles that appeared in Technical Communication during the previous calendar year. This year's jury members were Tom Warren (chair), Jeff Hibbard, and last year's winner, Han Yu.

The award honors the memory of Frank R. Smith, during whose 18 years as editor this journal became established as the flagship publication of STC and of the profession.

This year, the jury selected one outstanding article and two distinguished articles.

2010 Outstanding Article in Technical Communication

Tatiana Batova. Writing for the participants of international clinical trials: Law, ethics, and culture. (August 2010)

“For offering insightful discussion and lessons-learned regarding clinical trials across cultures; covering a region (Russia) and area (clinical trials) not much examined in current intercultural technical communication studies; and for raising serious issues that extend to all cross-cultural communication. Inclusion of future research needs is a positive, not only for academics but also for technical communication professionals. Very informative on a topic that is important both professionally and socially. Well written for the total STC audience with obvious and thorough scholarship and research.”

2010 Distinguished Articles in Technical Communication

Nicole St. Germaine-McDamiel. Technical Communication in the health fields: Executive Order 13166 and its impact on translation and localization. (August 2010)

“For offering findings in intercultural health communication, an important area in intercultural technical communication, and for offering practitioners some best practices. An especially good model for those wanting to understand how government regulations influence technical communication.”

Lisa Meloncon, Erin Haynes, Megan Varelmann, and Lisa Groh. Building a playground: General guidelines for creating educational Web sites for children. (November 2010)

“For offering useful and practical guidelines for developing web sites for children that fill a current gap in web site usability studies. The article shows rigorous and well distilled research with relevant examples and case reviews.”







Frank R. Smith Outstanding Article Award 2010