59.3, August 2012

Editorial: The World of Intriguing and Beautiful Instructions

Menno D.T. de Jong, Editor

At the annual STC Summit, I always make sure to see the award-winning publications in the Best of Show Competition. Invariably I am impressed by the craftsmanship and creativity of the technical communication professionals who designed them. This is where it all comes together: professionalism, education, research, and individual talents.

The winning practitioners receive recognition from their peers, but are seldom recognized by the persons they work for: the end users. Instructions are, in Herzberg’s (1964) terms, a hygiene factor: high-quality instructions may help to avoid dissatisfaction among users, but are less likely to cause satisfaction. This in contrast to the so-called motivation factors, which may or may not cause satisfaction. Another complication is that the quality of technical communication products only shows when they are intensively used. Superficial inspection does not suffice to discriminate between good and not-so-good instructions.

Compared to their colleagues in advertising, technical communication professionals do their work in the shade. Collections of striking, humorous and beautiful commercials are made all over the world. Many of the commercials are available on YouTube, and people watch them for pleasure and talk about them with their friends. There are no popular Web sites, books or television programs celebrating memorable instructions. However, people who have an eye for them can easily find thought-provoking examples.

Intriguing Instructions

Sometimes instructions are so surprising or different that they have a lasting effect on your thinking or behavior. Many years ago, I boarded an airplane and read the safety instructions. It was the first time (and also the last, I believe) that I read safety instructions stating that people should remove their glasses in the case of an emergency. I remember telling this to Patricia Wright, the most respected researcher in our field, who explained that the instruction made sense: It was meant to prevent injuries caused by glass splinters. But if that is true, how come that so few safety instructions give this advice? I cannot help thinking about this instruction every time I board an airplane and wait for take-off.

I had a similar experience when I visited the Great Wall in China. After a long climb, I found a warning sign on one of the towers regarding cell phone use in the case of a thunderstorm. The sign read: “Speaking cellphone is strictly prohibited when thunderstorm.” On the Internet, I found variations on this theme, also from the Great Wall: “Mobile phone users warned of lightning strike risk” and “Don’t call in thunder storm day.” Of course, the difference in strategies used is interesting, but the most pressing question is why this advice is given on the Great Wall and nowhere else? Discussions on the Internet reveal that a deadly accident in the past involving a cell phone user is the background of the warning sign. But what about the advice: Does it make sense or not?

Beautiful Instructions

Sometimes instructions do not raise such questions, but make you read and appreciate them simply because they are different and beautiful. In a garden in Suzhou (China), the signs to instruct visitors seemed to have almost the same appeal as the beautiful scenery. Instead of a prosaic “Keep off the grass,” a sign read: “Don’t tread on the grass as they have also life.” And instead of an unheard-of sign “Behave yourself,” another sign read “Civilized behaviour of tourists is another bright scenery.” Is it culture? Translation? Strategy? Art?

In This Issue

The first article in this issue, by Ardion Beldad and Michaël Steehouder, focuses on the quality of helpdesk calls between nonnative English speakers. Helpdesk calls can be a nuisance to the users of technical devices from time to time, and in this study, the researchers added an extra complication, in the form of language differences. They used conversation analysis to shed light on the causes of understanding problems, and argue that such problems can seldom be attributed to differences in language background between the callers. Specific communicative skills of helpdesk agents appear to be very important. Beldad and Steehouder discuss several techniques that helpdesk agents use to repair and prevent misunderstandings. The effectiveness of helpdesks is an understudied phenomenon within the domain of technical communication. Hopefully other researchers will take up this challenge and further investigate the success factors of helpdesks.

The second article is written by Jason Swarts. He studied another modality of technical communication: instructional video. His method of research was content analysis: he collected a sample of instructional videos of varying quality, and developed a coding scheme to analyze them. His research led to many specific process and product guidelines for those who want to use video to instruct people. His article can be read as a first step toward a set of high-level heuristics for instructional video. Like the helpdesk calls, instructional video is also a topic that definitely deserves more research attention in the field of technical communication.

The third article, by Lisa Meloncon, can be placed in two research traditions. Meloncon investigated the content of academic certificates in technical and professional communication in the United States. On the one hand, the research is related to earlier articles analyzing the content of undergraduate and graduate programs in technical communication in the past volumes of Technical Communication. On the other hand, the research connects to the discussions about professionalization in our discipline, most notably in the recent double special issue. Meloncon provides a lot of factual information about academic certificates, and also raises many questions about such programs.

The fourth and last article is a tutorial written by Karina Stokes. She focuses on a topic that is increasingly important in professional life: grant writing. Both in business and governmental organizations and in the academic world, grant writing has become an important success factor. Technical communicators may use their writing expertise to contribute to grant writing processes. Stokes’ article provides many valuable and original insights to do so.

Together, the four articles show how research and practical recommendations are intertwined. In the first two articles, the empirical findings were translated into useful practical recommendations. In the third article, the empirical results raised many questions. Some of these questions call for future research; other questions are important to consider when making choices about certificate programs. In the last article, practical advice is offered on writing successful grants. The advice is based on the author’s years of experience in grant writing, but at the end of the article, the author calls for future research to further validate the strategy proposed.


Herzberg, F. (1966). Work and the nature of man. Cleveland, OH: World Publishing.