61.2, May 2014

The Faces of Technology in Technical Communication

Menno D.T. de Jong, Editor


Of all communication disciplines, technical communication might be the most viable sub discipline. Technology is omnipresent in current societies and is hardly ever self-explanatory. Technological developments go fast, and the reactions of intended and unintended users appear to be hard to predict. Technical communicators are sitting on a goldmine with their unique expertise in understanding users, explaining complex technologies, and making technology easy to use.

Throughout the years, the field of technical communication seems to have broadened. The unique feature of being able to explain complex systems or devices made technical communicators well-equipped for communicating about legal, policy, risk, or health-related issues. The growing interwovenness of communication and technology made technical communicators suitable for all kinds of computer-mediated communication. As a consequence, technical communication as a discipline has filled some gaps that were left behind by other disciplines. Think of the attention in the technical communication literature to the role and design of presentation slides, or to the problem of writing for the Web.

The downside of such developments is that some of the important aspects of technology seem to lose prominence in the books and journals. This may partly be due to the location of technical communication programs and scholars in universities: most often in English departments and Arts or Humanities schools. It may also be ascribed to difficulties in researching and writing about highly specialized technological topics. To further strengthen the relationship between theory and practice, more research attention to more technological aspects of technical communication would be welcome.

Four Technological Orientations

Let me clarify my assertions by briefly discussing four technological orientations. The first involves the usability of and user support for consumer products and software packages. Implicitly, most of the attention for technology in the technical communication literature seems to fall into this category. Technical communicators are confronted with users who increasingly expect that the device or software can be used without any form of user support, and who may be reluctant to refer to a manual or online help system, even in the case of an impasse. The main tasks of the technical communicator are to offer support for users at the moments they need it, and to make them aware of the functionality of the product. The significance of the work of technical communicators is underlined by two developments. First, there is an enormous amount of informal user support freely available on the Internet in the form of discussion groups or user forums. Second, there is also a flourishing industry of commercially available manuals, for which consumers appear to be willing to pay considerable amounts of money. As reluctant as the users of consumer products and software packages may be to look for the official user support, they do realize they need help sometimes. Several fascinating research themes announce themselves in this area, including the comparison of informal, commercial and official types of user support, and people’s underuse of products and strategies of making users aware of neglected product functionality. The role of the technical communicator is strategically very important as it is directly related to the (perceived) value of the product or software package and may increase user satisfaction and loyalty.

The second technological orientation involves the advanced technology – the usability of and user documentation for highly specialized and complex devices that are not meant for mass user audiences but for specialized professionals. In many cases, the correct usage of such devices can be a matter of life and death, such as in aviation, military, healthcare, space travel, and machine building contexts. In the recent literature on technical communication, the work of technical communicators in such industries is largely underexposed. It would be very interesting to know more about the problems, strategies and experiences of technical communicators in this area. What are the similarities and differences with the work of technical communicators in the consumer goods and software packages industries? How do technical communicators handle the responsibility of critical usability issues?

The third technological orientation involves the relationship between technology and communication. Since the rise of ICTs, the contribution of technology as communication means has grown in importance. Research into the design of Web sites or PowerPoint slides can be seen as an example, but Web sites and PowerPoint can no longer be seen as cutting-edge technology. It would be interesting to expand the spectrum to newer contributions of technology to human communication. One such development is persuasive technology, in which the design of technology replaces verbal and visual messages and influences people’s behaviors. One can think of the world of mobile apps, which affect our daily lives in many respects.

The fourth technological orientation involves the use of technology in the workplace. More than any other communication professionals, technical communicators are used to working with tools to collaborate, to manage documentation projects, to support translations, or to merge text and (audio)visual elements. One can think of information management and component content management. In the Book Reviews section of this journal, we can see many examples of useful handbooks in this area. However, the research attention to the use and effects of such tools is still limited. Research that addresses the effects of tooling in the writing environment on the usability of instructions would, in my view, for instance be fascinating.

In This Issue

This issue includes three articles. The first article is written by Sam Dragga and Gwendolyn Gong, and focuses on the intersection between technical communication and risk communication. They analyzed the communication about the historical case of Port Chicago, and uncover rhetorical practices that were damaging to the safety, identity, and vitality of a community. On the basis of their analysis, they reflect on the role of the technical communicator in risk communication.

In the second article, Tammy Rice-Bailey reports on a first study into the challenges experienced by technical communicators who work remotely from their audiences and project teams. She conducted a series of surveys and interviews among technical communication professionals who predominantly worked remotely as consultants for large U.S. corporate organizations, and inventoried the challenges they faced, including the total lack of direct contact with end users, problems with the access to information, difficulties in the work-life-balance, and a lack of social interaction.

The third article, by Hans van der Meij, continues a series of articles in this journal on the use of video instructions. In the 2012 volume, Jason Swarts published a first award-winning article on video instructions; in 2013, Hans van der Meij and Jan van der Meij published another award-winning article on the same topic. In this issue, Hans van der Meij reports on an empirical study with children as participants, which demonstrates the potential effectiveness of video instruction.


Frank R. Smith Outstanding Article Award 2013

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 Editorial Advisory Board member Avon Murphy (chair), David Kowalsky, and winner of last year’s Outstanding Article Award, Hanna Jochmann-Mannak. 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 and one distinguished article.

2013 Outstanding article in Technical Communication

Lisa Meloncon and Sally Henschel. Current State of U.S. Undergraduate Degree Programs in Technical and Professional Communication. (February 2013)

“For their in-depth, critical review of 65 programs in technical and professional communication in the United States. Their analysis of trends between 2005 and 2011 uses a methodology that makes it easy to replicate their study.”

2013 Distinguished article in Technical Communication

Hans van der Meij and Jan van der Meij. Eight Guidelines for the Design of Instructional Videos for Software Training. (August 2013)

“For enunciating guidelines that can help us produce training videos that lead to increased motivation, proficiency, and retention of skills. The authors validate each guideline by connecting it to major experimental studies and closely analyzed examples of effective videos.”