62.1, February 2015

Technical Communication in a Globalized World

Even more than other communication sub disciplines, technical communication has become a globalized field. Since most technology does not stop at national borders, technical companies are dealing with international markets. Even companies that start as small-scale local initiatives will be confronted with international issues once they become successful. And let us not forget the level of internationalization within our own countries: user groups have become considerably more diverse, both in language and in culture. We do not have to travel anymore to experience the globalized world.

Technical communication academics and practitioners recognized the significance of the consequences of a globalized world for our discipline decades ago. When I entered the field, around 1995, intercultural technical communication was already an important and promising topic. Throughout the years we have seen articles on various aspects of the globalized world, varying from non U.S. technical communication education to offshoring and outsourcing, and from analyses of cultural differences among users and documents to accounts of the local historical contexts of technical communication genres.

The implications of a globalized world for technical communication may be found in three areas: translation, localization, and cross-cultural and intercultural communication. Despite promising research contributions on these areas, the overall picture of research is still fragmentized.


With a few exceptions, such as Maylath (2013) and Maylath et al. (2013), the interface between technical communication and translation has been underexposed in the technical communication literature. However, the challenges and the developments in this area seem to be huge. Challenges involve the need to translate large amounts of information into many different languages. The costs of such operations may be very high, in addition to the costs of producing the information in the first place. Developments involve the rapid developments in the fields of automated and computer-aided translation. Such developments might have consequences for the specifications of the source text and for the professions of technical communicators and translators. More research connecting the fields of technical translation and technical communication is needed.


A problem with the term ‘localization’ is that it is used in two ways. Narrowly defined, it involves the adjustment of content to national contexts, which may vary from superficial (for example, changing addresses for customer support) to intrinsic (for example, adjusting the instructions for usage preferences that may differ between countries). Broadly defined, it not only comprises such content localization, but also translation quality and cultural customization (see Chao, Singh, Hsu, Chen, & Chao, 2012). Depending on the perspective chosen, localization may vary from the least to the most far-reaching adaptation of products or user support. Too little is known about the localization strategies companies choose and about the way technical communicators implement those. Again, more research is needed here.

Cross-Cultural and Intercultural Communication

By far, the most research attention has been paid to the topics of cross-cultural and intercultural communication. Cross-cultural communication involves comparisons between cultures; intercultural communication the interaction between cultures. Studies have taken emic perspectives (aimed at understanding a culture from within) as well as etic perspectives (aimed at comparing different cultures).

Although many individual studies have provided us with interesting and valuable insights, the body of research as a whole seems to have serious shortcomings. First, the various studies seem to be scattered across topics and cultures, which obscures the emergence of an overall picture. Second, relatively many studies focus on comparisons of documents, and do not involve the performance and experiences of users from different cultures. This leads to ambiguous results as the differences found may not correspond to the preferences of users but may be attributable to traditions in and developments within the professional field. In western cultures, for instance, it has taken many years before we realized that the directness of an instructive style is most effective in technical communication. Third, a convincing theoretical framework seems to be lacking. There seems to be a gap between “top-down” research that departs from cultural dimensions, such as those proposed by Hofstede (2001), and “bottom-up” research that departs from specific communication variables. So far, the two research lines do not seem to meet. I have not seen many persuasive translations of general cultural dimensions into specific document characteristics.

Interface between Translation, Localization and Culture

Perhaps the most exciting research would involve the interface between the three topics. It goes without saying that there will be tensions between translation on the one hand, in which the role of automated sub processes is growing, and localization and cross-cultural communication on the other hand, which call for cultural knowledge, sensitivity, and empathy. It would be very interesting to see how technical companies handle such issues in practice, and how technical communication practitioners view the optimal integration of the three issues.

In This Issue

This issue contains four articles. The first two articles address the relationship between technical communication and user-generated content.

In the first article, Jo Mackiewicz analyzes the quality aspects of online product reviews. What makes a helpful review, and how can technical communication professionals facilitate and manage this type of user-generated content? She answers these questions on the basis of a literature review and exemplifies her observations using a corpus of product reviews.

In the second article, Jason Swarts investigates the role of technical communicators in the functioning of software user forums. His article can be seen as the next step after last year’s contribution by Jordan Frith on the same topic. Swarts interviewed moderators and frequent posters on four user forums. On the basis of his results, he specifies three types of contributions: clarifying software problems, maintaining ties between community members, and creating an infrastructure for storing and retrieving information.

The third article focuses on technical communication education. In the context of an Austrian aeronautical engineering program, Dietmar Tatzl developed, taught and evaluated a technical communication project designed to simulate a professional workplace environment. He provides a description of the course as well as an account of its evaluation, which turned out to be very positive.

The fourth article, by Petra ten Hove and Hans van der Meij, investigates the design of instructional videos. This, again, connects well to several earlier contributions in Technical Communication, most notably by Jason Swarts and Hans van der Meij. Ten Hove and Van der Meij tried to predict instructional YouTube videos’ popularity—they propose a formula to assess this—using a limited set of physical characteristics: resolution, visuals, verbal & sound, and tempo. They showed that popular videos scored high on nearly all physical characteristics.


Chao, M. C., Singh, N., Hsu, C.-C., Chen, I.F. N., & Chao, J. (2012). Web site localization in the Chinese market. Journal of Electronic Commerce Research, 13(1), 33-49.

Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences. Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nation. (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Maylath, B. (2013). Current trends in translation. Communication & Language at Work, 1(2), 41-50.

Maylath, B., et al. (2013). Managing complexity: A technical communication translation case study in multilateral international collaboration. Technical Communication Quarterly, 22(1), 67-84.