61.1, February 2014

Editorial: The Technical Communication Business Case: Value Added or Social Responsibility?

Menno D.T. de Jong, Editor

my_editorial_of_thisLast year’s volume of Technical Communication ended with a special issue, guest edited by Hillary Hart and Craig Baehr, focusing on sustainably developing a body of knowledge. The articles contained in the special issue provided relevant insights for the Technical Communication Body of Knowledge (TCBOK) project, which I consider to be a crucial project for the growth and development of our discipline. I would like to express my gratitude and admiration to Hillary and Craig for collecting a great and diverse set of articles about this significant topic.

When we think about growth and development of technical communication, it seems to be important to consider two different levels: the level of the discipline as a whole and the level of technical communication professionals working for companies. The two levels are, of course, related.

On the level of the discipline as a whole, it is necessary to have a strong and active professional association. The Society for Technical Communication has played this role for more than 60 years, and will continue to play its part. STC’s chapters, its special interest groups, and the yearly Technical Communication Summit facilitate a lively exchange between technical communication practitioners and academics. Technical Communication and Intercom contribute to the ongoing development of academic and practical knowledge, and initiatives like the TCBOK and STC’s certification program provide the more overarching views on the status of our discipline. In addition, it is important for the discipline that there are reputable academic programs of technical communication.

But what about the technical communication professionals working for companies? In the literature we can see traces of the struggles technical communication professionals have to face. Many of the struggles involve money and return on investment. Accountability has been an increasingly important issue in the entire communication field. Managers want to know whether their money is well-spent with specific communication activities. At the same time, they are increasingly focusing on easy-to-operationalize and easy-to-measure characteristics. The quality of user support does not fall under that category. It takes a thorough evaluation to form a judgment about user-friendliness. The combination of a request for evidence of value added and a focus on easily measurable indicators is a disadvantageous one for technical communication professionals.

In the past we have seen a number of excellent attempts to reflect on the value added by technical communication professionals—by Corbin, Moell, and Boyd (2002), Henry (1998), Mead (1998), Ramey (1995), and Redish (1995)—which together form a promising framework for further studying value added issues. Unfortunately, there have been no substantial publications following up on this work. In a time of budget cuts, outsourcing and offshoring, renewed research attention for the value added by technical communicators would be more than welcome, preferably in the form of empirical research seeking evidence for the value added.

A problem with value added approaches is that the cost reduction and the benefits may only show after considerable time; for instance, because customer experiences with suboptimal products and/or user support will take some time to emerge, and their reactions to such experiences may even take longer.

One could also argue that such an economic perspective on the work of technical communicators is neither necessary nor justified. Producing high-quality products, such as technical devices or software, simply requires that the user support is of the same high quality as the products themselves. Enhancing the functionality of products and making users pay for newer improved versions can only be justified if the users are adequately instructed about the new functionality. This reminds me of the priceless button of Human Factors International: “If the user can’t find it, the function’s not there.” In this light, adequate user support is merely a matter of social responsibility.

This brings me to a second phenomenon that deserves more research attention. In my view, the underuse of devices and software is an amazingly underresearched topic. The discrepancy between engineers developing more and more functionality and users only using a small portion of that to their benefits asks for a reflection on the balance, and ideally an integration, between product development and user support. The quality of the user support should be an obvious part of product quality.

In This Issue

This first issue of 2014 contains three articles with a very different scope. In the first article, Ilya Tirdatov describes a rhetorical analysis of crowd funding Web sites. Using the traditional concepts of ethos, pathos, and logos, he analyzed thirteen crowd funding project descriptions posted on Kickstarter. The research is a fine example of how rhetorical analysis can be very practically relevant. In the second article, Leo Lentz, Henk Pander Maat, and Ted Sanders describe the Knowledge Base Comprehensible Text, a digital resource containing research on the comprehension and usability of documents. The Knowledge Base they describe is both more general and more specific than the Technical Communication Body of Knowledge. It is more general because it also includes research from other realms than technical communication. It is more specific because it focuses on comprehension and excludes many other issues that may be relevant for technical communicators.

In the third and last article, Jenni Virtaluoto provokingly writes about “the death of the technical communicator.” Based on autoethnographic data and interviews, she describes the daily work of technical communicators and the issues they are facing. A prominent challenge described is the difficulty of really incorporating users in the daily work practice.

This issue’s Book Reviews section is complemented by a Tools of the Trade article in which Avon Murphy describes and compares four books on responsive Web design.


Corbin, M., Moell, P., & Boyd, M. (2002). Technical editing as quality assurance: Adding value to content. Technical Communication, 49(3), 286-300.
Henry, J. (1998). Documenting contributory expertise: The value added by technical communicators in collaborative writing situations. Technical Communication, 45(2), 207-220.
Mead, J. (1998). Measuring the value added by technical documentation: A review of research and practice. Technical Communication, 45(3), 353-379.
Ramey, J. (1995). What technical communicators think about measuring value added. Technical Communication, 42(1), 40-51.
Redish, J. (1995). Adding value as a technical communicator. Technical Communication, 42(1), 26-39.