58.3, August 2011

Editorial: Exploring the Borders of Technical Communication: Health Communication

Exploring the Borders of Technical Communication: Health Communication

Menno D.T. de Jong, Editor

Editorials from earlier this year discussed the relationship between technical communication and two other communication-related disciplines: corporate and organizational communication and human-computer interaction. In both cases, the attention to functional texts, writing, and document design appeared to be important distinctive features of our discipline. This editorial focuses on the relationship between technical communication and health communication. Health communication comprises health education and various subdisciplines that focus on specific health-related issues (tobacco, alcohol, drugs), target groups (adolescents), or media (the Internet). Health communication topics can also be found in broader outlets focusing on, for instance, preventive medicine or health policy.

The fields of health and technical communication share some fundamental characteristics: their practical focus (the undisputed underlying goal is to optimize communication effectiveness), their connection between an academic and a professional discipline, and their process orientation (the research attention for the systematic way communication is designed). Technical Communication has included several health-related articles in the past years, and one of the articles in this issue is a clear example. Most health communication literature appears to focus on the strategic aspects of persuasive communication. But health-related articles in technical communication outlets typically involve the design of complex functional documents or Web sites. Technical communication research complements the health communication body of knowledge by investigating the problem of complex information design, in particular the design of informative and instructive documents.

Comparing Disciplines

It is clear that technical communication researchers may contribute to the body of health communication knowledge, and that technical communication professionals may contribute to methods for communicating health-related topics. But what can we as a discipline learn from the discipline of health communication?

A first issue that comes to mind is a more systematic attention to target audiences. The health communication literature focuses a good deal of attention on the health-related beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of specific groups of people. This attention seems to be less prominent in the technical communication literature, but the approach has potential. One can think of the distinction between novice and expert users, but also between users with different educational levels and from different age groups.

A related issue involves medium choice. In the health communication literature, the selection of information sources by target audiences appears to be an important research topic. In technical communication the medium used is more often treated as a given. It may be worthwhile to focus more on users’ media preferences in our research.

Two types of messages are studied in the health communication literature: communication that may cause problematic behaviors (e.g., the effects of alcohol advertisements or product placement), and communication that is designed as an intervention to promote healthy behaviors (e.g., a commercial, a brochure, or a training program). The technical communication literature focuses mainly on the second type of article: designing communication to serve the users. But what about the first type? Further reflection on factors that complicate the use of technology would be more than welcome. Such articles could address the flaws in the design of technical products that must be remedied by the technical communicator, or even the fundamental problems of communicating about technology with lay users.

Another difference may be the stronger theoretical embedding of research contributions. In health communication, many articles build on existing theoretical frameworks. For instance, when researchers address the strategies of promoting behavioral change, the theory of planned behavior is often used to motivate and design the research. The theory states that people’s behaviors are affected by (but are not the same as) their behavioral intentions, and that their behavioral intentions may be affected by their attitudes toward the behavior, the social influence, and their perceived behavioral control. In technical communication, empirical studies are strongly embedded in earlier research, but the earlier research often does not have the status of explicit theories that may be expected to help predict future behaviors.

Finally, the health communication literature includes many articles that focus on the design and effects of specific health promotion interventions. Such articles are generally concise and straightforward. Technical Communication has the article category to facilitate such articles (case history) and even offers the possibility of publishing additional materials (such as the communication itself) online. Our discipline might benefit from more articles in which technical communicators describe and motivate their communication product, and report on qualitative evaluation results or an experimental comparison.

This comparison of the two disciplines identifies ways in which technical communication professionals and academics may contribute to the field of health communication. The comparison also pointed out a number of topics and approaches that currently seem to be underexposed in our field. It may be worthwhile to further explore the relevance of these topics and approaches in the future.

In This Issue

In this issue’s first article Henk Pander Maat and Leo Lentz describe how card-sorting research may contribute to the effective organization of patient information leaflets. Their study is both methodologically and practically relevant. The article gives a clear demonstration of the use of (closed and open) card-sorting techniques that may be used by technical communication professionals. These techniques contribute to the toolkit of applied research techniques that seems to be so important for our discipline. Not ivory tower research, but research that practitioners can use to optimize communication design processes. The article also provides interesting insights into the organization of the specific document genre of patient information leaflets. These leaflets may make the difference between effective and ineffective medicine use and even between life and death. There is still a lot to be learned about the design of such documents. Interestingly, an official attempt to serve the interests of the users, in the form of a template prescribed by the European Union, appeared to be counter-productive. This raises questions about the best way to serve the users. Stronger involvement of technical communicators and user research seem to be important factors for a successful template.

In the second article, John Killoran describes a new step in his research into the marketing communication of independent technical communicators and technical communication agencies. Last year, he published two articles that focused on how potential clients may be attracted to the Web sites of technical communication professionals and agencies, addressing offline as well as online techniques, with special attention to search engines. In his current article, he addresses the content of such Web sites. Portfolios are a potentially strong instrument to convince potential clients of the required skills and expertise. He analyzes the actual use of portfolios and their perceived usefulness, but also addresses related issues such as confidentiality and intellectual property of the works.