61.4, November 2014

Dealing with the Dynamics of Active Users

Menno D.T. de Jong, Editor


Knowledge of the users of technology—or, more correctly, a thorough understanding of the users of technology—is one of the competencies that distinguishes technical communicators from other professionals in the arena. This competency is vital for one of the core responsibilities of technical communicators, their role of user advocate. Frequent confrontations with real users struggling with technology, recurring processes of familiarizing themselves with new devices or new software applications, and the challenge of explaining technology to new users are activities that contribute to this competency.

The image of the users of technology has evolved from static to dynamic. Users are no longer assumed to always use devices and software exactly as intended by the designers. Instead, they make sense of technology in their own way and actively try to give technology a place in their daily routines. As such, they co-shape the technology they use in their lives. The research on the phenomenon of active users, however, seems to lag behind.

Active Users and User Instructions

The concept of active users is quite familiar in the context of user instructions. When I think of active users, the first thing that comes to mind is the way people work with user instructions. There still seems to be an official scenario, in which a user first reads the instructions before he or she starts installing and using a device. Like the user manual of my all-in-one printer, scanner, and copying machine says: “Unpack and power on your printer (see setup flyer).” In reality there will be no user who has not done that before even looking for the manual. “Before using the user manual” is the first, and puzzling, heading of the user manual of my Blu-ray disc player, a sentence that seems to come from another planet. Despite decades of research, some manuals still seem to suggest that users will read them in a linear way before they start experimenting with the device or software.

Still every technical communicator is aware of the nonlinear way in which users work with user instructions. People who argue that hypertext thoroughly affected the way people read functional documents underestimate the nonlinear way in which people were already used to reading paper documents. We know that users read user instructions in a very efficient and goal-oriented (although not necessarily successful) way, minimizing the reading part and optimizing the navigating and scanning of text. We have come to accept that navigation is an important aspect of the usability of documents, so important that we sometimes seem to neglect the comprehensibility and applicability of the information in usability testing.

Active Users and Products

The notion of active users is not limited to their working with user instructions. Several theories underline that also the behaviors of users with devices and software reflect the disposition of active users. Traditional theories such as the Diffusion of Innovations Theory, the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) and the Unified Theory of the Use and Acceptance of Technology (UTAUT) seem to suggest that users merely have the options to accept or reject a product. But there are other theoretical approaches that assume a much more active role of users.

The concept of appropriation underlines users’ ability and inclination to actively shape technology. In their process of incorporating technology in their daily routines, some functions of products may be highlighted, and other functions remain largely unused. Users may even use devices or software for purposes that the designers never thought of, and thus co-invent new functionalities. Think of the selfies option on cell phones. With the earlier smartphones, without a front-facing cam, it was quite an achievement to take a good selfie (although some cell phone users appeared to be very skilled at that). Modern smartphones without a front-facing cam are not imaginable. Understanding users includes developing insight in such appropriation processes. There are some studies into people’s creative use of devices, but they remain rather conservative, with pre-defined creative uses instead of an exploratory design.

Appropriation can be defined as what people do with technology. The reverse process—what technology does with people—is equally relevant. This is called mediation. Understanding active users also implies gaining an understanding of how their lives are affected by technology. This may refer to overall effects of devices. Think of how the Internet or cell phones have changed our lives and our relationships with others. Think of how SPSS has changed academic research, or how word processors and content management systems have affected our writing. It may also refer to effects of small design characteristics, for instance in instant messaging tools. Recently, a fierce debate in the media started after Whatsapp added a feature that showed whether or not the receiver had read a message. The decision to include such a feature or not directly affects the way users communicate with each other. A thorough insight in the effects of technology on people is a prerequisite for a real understanding of users.

Implementation may be a third concept to consider. Implementation normally includes complex organizational systems and processes. Many implementation processes of software or devices fail or at the very least encounter serious problems. The compatibility of the new technology with existing work processes within an organization is one of the critical factors. The influences of human preference, skills, and resistance are other factors. It is easy for good software packages to fail in organizational contexts.

Such insights in people’s use of technology seem to call for an understanding of users beyond the limited context of usability testing, with pre-defined tasks and artificial contexts. Research could further explore the dynamics of appropriation, mediation, and implementation processes, and the extent to which technical communicators can use such knowledge in their work.

In This Issue

The first article in this issue, by Ryan Boettger, investigates the phenomenon of editing tests, which are commonly used by companies to assess the editing and writing skills of prospective technical communicators. Boettger analyzed the content of existing editing tests, and collected technical communication professionals’ views on the errors included in them. He showed that organizational contexts and professional views lead to different perceptions. The frequency of problems included in tests did not correlate with the severity of the problems in the eyes of professionals. As such, the article provides food for thought about current practices and clues to further improve such tests.

In the second article, Pieter Cornelissen, Joris van Hoof, and Mark van Vuuren describe a quantitative study into the safety climate of and employees’ safety performance within an organization. Of the variables included in their study, personal motivation—employees’ own motivation to behave safely—and external ability—the organization’s ability to provide a safe workplace—appeared to affect safety climate and safety performance. The results give rise to reflections about the design of effective safety instructions, a topic that deserves more research attention within the domain of technical communication.

In the third article, Heidi Everett analyzes the instructions for Web design in popular textbooks from the mid-1990s to now. She is particularly interested in the nature of the instructions: Are they presented as clear-cut guidelines that simply have to be applied, or are the designers of Web sites encouraged to think critically about their usefulness and about the rationale behind them? She also reflects on the role of theory in the textbooks.

The fourth and last article, by David Magolis and Michael Homishak, focuses on users’ perspectives on technology. Specifically, they investigate the attitudes of preservice teachers toward the use of technology in class, as well as their use of technology. Three main problem areas are identified: a lack of formal training in technology use, concerns about the effects PowerPoint may have on presentations—a familiar topic in earlier Technical Communication volumes—and the risk of an over reliance on technology.

This issue’s Book Reviews section is complemented by a Tools of the Trade article in which Brenda Huettner describes and compares four books on infographics.