63.1, February 2016

Visions and Directions of Research

By Sam Dragga, Editor

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This issue of Technical Communication includes the winning illustration in the journal’s inaugural cover competition. Impressive, don’t you think?

Responding to a call for illustrations that address “The Future of Technical Communication,” a wide array of graphic artists, working individually and collaboratively, in academic and industry environments, submitted a total of 35 illustrations. A five-member international jury reviewed the entries and identified the winner and four honorable mentions (see following pages). I think the addition to the journal of this new section allows us to seize the creative opportunity of a cover that changes with each issue as well as to emphasize the capacity of visual communication to inspire critical thinking and influence research. The five illustrations in this issue offer us a splendid initiation and establish a high standard for all following competitions. (The competition for the May 2016 issue closed on January 1, and the competition for August 2016 is in progress.)

In addition, three important articles grace this issue. While the cover offers a vision of the evolving field of technical communication, Mats Broberg chronicles a lively history with a documentation management system in “A Decade of XML—And A New Procurement and Lessons Learned”—a continuation of his 2004 article in this journal, “A Successful Documentation Management System Using XML” (51.4: 537–546). Broberg’s article makes clear that a universal verity applies also to us as technical communicators: knowing where we’re going is contingent on realizing—as precisely as possible—where we’ve been.

The field of technical communication, however, has always been receptive to continuing challenges to existing practice—a trait that keeps us poised and vigorous. In “Structured Authoring without XML: Evaluating Lightweight DITA for Technical Documentation,” Carlos Evia and Michael Priestley propose a new direction for the field. Theirs is a feasibility study of using HDITA (i.e., a lightweight version of DITA using HTML5 tags and attributes) to simplify the authoring process for technical documentation. Evia and Priestley test their hypothesis on a class of student writers and report positive findings, both in attitudes about HDITA and in evaluation of the projects created using it.

The field of technical communication is also making progress in the direction of greater dexterity with intercultural communication and greater sensitivity to linguistic, economic, social, and religious diversity. In periods of rising international tensions and anxieties driven by wars, terrorist activity, migrations, famines, droughts, and climate change, technical communicators might exemplify how to cultivate judicious inquiry and compose lucid information on a foundation of scientific evidence and humanitarian principles. Josephine Walwema’s “Tailoring Information and Communication Design to Diverse International and Intercultural Audiences: How Culturally Sensitive ICD Improves Online Market Penetration” guides us in that direction. Examining the Souq.com shopping website (headquartered in the United Arab Emirates), Walwema discovers that the universal principles of Information and Communication Design (ICD) offer a noteworthy but insufficient basis for creating information suited to local users. Knowledge of indigenous traditions and practices also is key to effective technical communication.

The issues addressed in research journals, however, are typically researcher-initiated: that is, motivated by the academic or industry objectives of the researcher. Could we also consider as a potential new direction the opportunity for subscriber-initiated research? What are research questions you would appreciate getting answers to? What are the research projects that you have neither the time nor the resources to address but that you believe are important for the field to investigate? What are the research articles you would appreciate finding in this journal? And would researchers pick up the projects that subscribers propose?

For example, every public university in Texas has been developing a policy to regulate the carrying of concealed weapons on campus. (A new Texas law dictating that public universities must allow this concealed carry of weapons takes effect on August 1 of this year.) This extraordinary and simultaneous effort by multiple institutions—each devising regulations tailored to its unique environment, population, and safety considerations—offers a singular opportunity to examine how policy is generated. I would genuinely appreciate a thoroughgoing comparative analysis of the university policies that have been written on this subject, especially regarding who participated in the writing of the policies. Were technical communicators engaged in this effort? I think the inclusion or exclusion of technical communicators in the writing of policies with life-or-death implications might be a salient indicator of the visibility (or invisibility) of the field as a vital contributor to the administration of academic institutions. And at least two related questions deserve answers: 1) How does this inclusion/exclusion correlate with policies that students, faculty, and staff judge easy-to-read and easy-to-understand versus complicated and confusing? and 2) Does inclusion of technical communicators lead to more or less cooperation with policies by students, faculty, and staff of the university? (I would also appreciate studies assessing the ethics and efficacy of concealed-carry practices or the academic impact of allowing weapons in classrooms, but each is likely a topic for a different research journal.)

This is my list of desired research projects. What’s yours?