63.2, May 2016

The Courage, Generosity, and Curiosity of Research

By Sam Dragga, Editor


This issue of the journal offers you four articles to inform and inspire your thinking about this always-evolving field of technical communication. Two of the articles are single-authored and focused on issues related to information design, while two are collaborative studies that examine emerging directions for teaching and practice–MOOCs and humanitarian enterprises. In addition to the usual summaries, I will try in this introduction to offer you insight on the genesis of each article. After their manuscripts were accepted for publication, I asked the authors about the rigors of getting from initial idea to published page. I think their perspectives here serve as important reminders of the fragile and impressive human beings who generate this research, who identify questions and compile tentative answers, who write and revise and try to verify and clarify their findings, who incorporate advice from reviewers and revise again, and who put their ideas and reputations on trial for all of us to judge.

In “Enacting Humanitarian Culture: How Technical Communication Facilitates Successful Humanitarian Work,” Rebecca Walton, Robin Mays, and Mark Haselkorn examine the nature of technical communication practices adapted from business environments to nonprofit organizations. Their multimodal and multilayered study—using observations and interviews of practitioners in six international locations—reinforces the centrality of localization, audience analysis, and collaboration but also reveals that the communication practices of humanitarian organizations must be driven by humanitarian principles of supporting human dignity and equality as opposed to the usual objectives of clarity and efficiency. Ordinarily, the way communication is practiced, especially the inclusion of stakeholders in the process, is more important to the humanitarian effort than the communication product itself. Walton, Mays, and Haselkorn thus give us a foundation—in both methods and results—on which to build thoroughgoing studies of writing in alternative environments.

I queried the three authors about their writing of this manuscript. While you might anticipate comments on collaboration, their answer focuses on the liability in questioning tacit conventions of the field:

One unique challenge for us has been overcoming the common assumption that successes of for-profit organizations can be translated directly into solutions for humanitarian organizations. Rather, we have found that for-profit solutions can actually distract us from effectively learning, developing and applying advances to non-profit work. Some disagree with the propositions we offer: that the humanitarian environment is fundamentally different from the for-profit environment; that the nature of humanitarian work is not well understood; that to gain this understanding we must start at ground zero of studying the work itself and the communication which supports it; that to do this we must conduct complex, time-consuming qualitative field studies. While the evidence is undeniable for us, the burden is ours, as authors and communicators, to reveal that which is unseen; to make the case for a new approach; and to convince readers that this is worth our time.

Their experience is also that dialogue and transparency will be essential to success if you are considering research projects of this kind:

Our advice would be to partner with humanitarian insiders by building some relationships. Look for connections (not sameness but synergies) among your respective interests, needs, and expertise. Then work together to establish a type and level of partnership that works well for all. Sometimes that means hands-on collaboration at every step: designing data collection materials, identifying partners as PIs on IRB applications, and co-publishing together. But that level or type of involvement may not be worthwhile or relevant to all humanitarian partners. At minimum, we’d recommend collaborating on the purpose of the research and envisioning together the desired outcomes for each party. An early scoping phase is useful for homing in together on research questions that are relevant to each party.

In “Speakers and Boards: A Survey of Instructional Video Styles in MOOCs,” José Miguel Santos-Espino, María Dolores Afonso-Suárez, and Cayetano Guerra-Artal also adopt multiple methods to examine their subject. Their analysis of five platforms for MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) serves to identify seven dominant video styles and a continuum from speaker-centric to board-centric (i.e., lectures and interviews versus slides and screens). A subsequent examination of 116 MOOCs uncovers the frequency of each video style and statistically significant correlations with the course subject area. The methods and the findings of this study have wide applicability for technical communicators developing and testing instructional videos for a wide array of products and services.

The three co-authors have been working together on video-based learning for several years, noticing that widely adopted claims are ill supported:

We are currently exploring how different video features and styles are being used by instructors in online courses such as MOOCs. We have observed a widespread belief in the research community: most MOOC videos are based in lectures and they rely on few communication styles. Despite numerous anecdotes, we were not able to find empirical data that support these assertions. That moved us to make a quantitative survey on the actual video style usage in international MOOC platforms.

As their project makes clear, research studies might be driven by questions or reservations about prevailing ideas or by a desire for more rigorous methods in compiling and analyzing the evidence that is the basis for theory and practice.

In “The Re-Emergence of Emotional Appeals in Interactive Data Visualization,” Charles Kostelnick makes the case that the affective design of charts and graphs—a practice virtually dormant during the modernist minimalism of the 1900s—has been revived in the age of digital technologies and collaborative multimedia. Professor Kostelnick traces the origins of emotion in statistical illustrations to the ingenuity of designers in the 1800s (e.g., Booth, Minard, Mulhall, Nightingale). He claims their integration of sensory stimuli (e.g., color, pictures) has again been adopted but reinforced by a new impetus—the ability of viewers to individualize the display of information. He urges technical communicators to recognize the history of emotion in the design of illustrations and to seize the opportunities of interactivity to invigorate the creation of meticulously informative and sincerely engaging data displays.

Obviously, every article about information displays must include clear and compelling examples to support its claims: I thus questioned Professsor Kostelnick as to how he decided on the 12 examples he uses in this article. He explained:

Designers in the late nineteenth century produced a rich array of data displays, as have contemporary digital data designers, so selecting examples to include in the article was very challenging because there are so many examples to consider.

I tried to select examples, both past and present, that showed a full range of emotional appeals. Victorian aesthetics pervaded all aspects of design in the later nineteenth century, including data design, perpetuating the legacy of Romanticism and its emphasis on emotion. The rich visual language of contemporary digital design has re-opened the door to emotion. In short, examples of emotion in data design abound in both eras, and my intent in selecting the examples was to show the connection between the two.

If you’re looking for more information on this subject, Professor Kostelnick has co-edited a new book with Miles Kimball: Visible Numbers: Essays on the History of Statistical Graphics (Ashgate, 2016). He also recommends the website Visual Complexity and Flowing Data for their examples of inventive data visualizations.

In “Making Memories: Writing and Designing More Memorable Documents,” Eric Sentell interviews 20 high school students and teachers about their memory of key information and specific details from flyers lining a corridor. He discovers that contrast, color, and imagery are important factors, but more important is the viewer’s sense of identity and the relevance the viewer thus ascribes to the information on the flyer. This finding leads to a six-step process for creating materials that will genuinely stick in the minds of viewers—strategies that would likely be invaluable for technical communicators designing cautions and warnings, meeting notifications, or action-required messages.

In answer to my questions about this article: Professor Sentell explained that it emerged from his growing recognition during his PhD studies of the impact of design on attention and memory. In his dissertation, he sought to address this little-examined question, because he considered it theoretically interesting but ripe with practical implications. As he notes,

To me, memory’s importance and potential power are obvious. One can refer back to a document instead of recalling it, of course, but memorable ideas, images, and texts have the potential to become iconic and to exert lasting influence on readers, society, and culture. So if the audience doesn’t remember what one says, then one is not communicating very powerfully. Yet theories of writing and design rarely, if ever, discuss how one can make information memorable. I felt compelled to develop some strategies for doing so.

If you are interested in this issue of memorability, Professor Sentell has several recommendations about resources as well as directions for research:

For background knowledge about memory, I suggest Marion Joan Francoz’s “Habit as Memory Incarnate,” Stewart Whittemore’s “Metadata and Memory,” and the work of Elizabeth Loftus. Francoz offers a thorough but succinct review of often-used metaphors and conceptions of memory. Whittemore’s article describes the “memory system” used by ancient orators, which accounts for much of memory’s rhetorical history, and its applications to technical communication. Loftus’ work presents our modern psychological understanding of memory. To dig deeper, one can also read Frances Yates and Mary Carruthers for thorough histories of memory’s rhetorical significance, Frederic Bartlett’s seminal psychological study of memory, and Whittemore’s recent book, Rhetorical Memory.

In terms of studies, there are many intriguing research questions one might investigate. Does this heuristic work in other genres or for other audiences, and if so, how? How do genre conventions constrain and enable memorableness? How does the medium affect an audience’s encoding? How do different physical spaces affect attention and memory? How does the concept of collective self-schema change theories of audience and/or the practice of audience analysis?

I believe that you will find the four articles in this issue to be as provocative and gratifying as did I and as did your twelve conscientious and anonymous colleagues who reviewed the manuscripts. The courage of the authors in sharing their research and the generosity of the reviewers in advising the authors are vital sources of innovation and are exceeded only by the unyielding curiosity that invigorates this field.