Purpose: Based on an analysis of 502 industry job postings, this article argues that technical communication work shares traits and competencies with the field of UX and that technical communicators who are not already doing UX work are well-qualified to expand their career paths into the UX field and could, in fact, play a central role in UX.
Method: We analyzed 502 user experience job postings from Monster.com. After mining the postings for position title, job type, education level, experience level, location, salary, and industry sector, we conducted a content analysis of the job descriptions, using open coding to identify professional competencies and personal characteristics that employers are seeking in applicants, as well as key technologies and information products.
Results: The user experience job postings could be grouped into five categories—Designer, Developer, Architect, Manager, Researcher—each with a distinct profile in terms of information products, technology skills, and professional competencies. However, the job postings also reflected skills, competencies, and characteristics that were common across job categories, and several of these are areas that overlap with more traditional technical communication positions.
Conclusion: We articulate the advantages and challenges of transitioning into UX and make recommendations to help technical communication practitioners and programs capitalize on the advantages and address the challenges.
Keywords: user experience, jobs, competencies, technologies, usability
- Provides empirical support for user experience as an extension of technical communication.
- Highlights areas in which technical communicators are ideally positioned for jobs in user experience.
- Provides workplace data for practitioners and those in academia who are engaged with ongoing efforts to keep curricula current and relevant.
Developing information products—e.g., instructional documents—for specific users has long been the core of technical communication work. Investigating how users interact with information products, and using that understanding to improve the design of those products, is also central. Professionals in technical communication and related fields have largely referred to assessing the effectiveness of an information product as “usability.” However, several scholars (see, for example, Johnson, Salvo, & Zoetewey, 2007; Redish, 2011; Potts, 2014; Sullivan, 2014) have argued for the need to move beyond usability to the richer and more inclusive approach of user experience (UX). Based on an analysis of 502 industry job postings, this article argues that technical communication work shares traits and competencies with the field of UX, and that technical communicators who are not already doing UX work are well-qualified to expand their career paths into the UX field and could, in fact, play a central role.
Usability and User Experience
Usability focuses on evaluating how well a user can navigate through a variety of tasks that an end product was designed to facilitate. Jakob Nielsen (2012) suggests that usability is comprised of five distinct components, including learnability, efficiency, memorability, errors, and satisfaction. Traditional approaches to usability focus on examining how well a user completes a series of isolated tasks while interacting with a single information product. However, as Dicks (2011) points out, “As the product gets larger and more complex, usability-testing methods prove increasingly inadequate for testing usefulness” (p. 208). Usability data collected in isolation often mask the complexity of the system (or multiple systems) and the complexity of a user’s interactions with that system in a real environment (Mirel, 2003; Still, 2011), thus hiding what Alber (2011) describes as “the turmoil beneath” (p. 3). Golightly et al. (2011) argue that usability needs to attend to both social and organizational complexity as well as technical complexity, “which moves away from a traditional input-output view of interaction to consider the use of multiple modalities, tasks, and interfaces during a single interaction with a system” (p. 282).
The broader concept of user experience (UX) also attempts to accommodate the complex realities of a user’s interactions, and integrate design and functionality across the entirety of a user’s brand experience. Nielsen (Definition of user experience) suggests that UX “encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.” In this way, UX suggests designing for interconnectedness, where tasks and texts no longer exist individually or in a silo, but instead connect across a broad and complex landscape of interfaces and environments. Ideally, UX also strives to accommodate how users appropriate information products and content in unanticipated ways and for their own purposes as well as how those products position users to act in the world by the way they are designed and the options they allow for. Thus, rather than the focus being solely on how quickly or accurately a user is able to complete a certain task, UX design and architecture attempt to build a more holistic and fluid experience, including one that acknowledges the multiple platforms, interfaces, and spaces by which a user may interact with a brand or information product. This holistic approach to the user is captured in the interdisciplinarity of UX, which, as a field, combines communication, psychology, human-computer interaction (HCI), social science, design, technology, and other specialized knowledge areas in an attempt to better understand user practices and meet the needs of users within and across information products and interfaces.
UX is typically implemented as a multi-stage process. The precise order and naming of the stages varies somewhat, as evidenced by the dozens of process illustrations found in UX handbooks and posted by UX professionals to the Web. For the most part, however, the process follows the pattern illustrated in Figure 1, which identifies five recursive stages, each with various sub-tasks and products.
Closer examination of Figure 1 reveals tasks and products in every stage of the UX process—such as personas, sitemaps, wireframes, styles, markup, and user feedback—that are already familiar to technical communication. More importantly, an overarching emphasis on the user makes technical communicators as valuable as programmers, psychologists, graphic designers, and others who are typically recognized as contributing to the UX process. In this respect, UX is a natural extension of the work that technical communicators already do, especially in the modern technological context of responsive design, in which content is deployed across a wide range of interfaces and environments. In fact, in an effort to show the closeness of the relationship between technical communication and UX, Redish and Barnum (2011) list several well-known UX professionals, (e.g., T. Adlin, D. Chisnell, J. Hackos, T. Howard, and others), who started out as technical communicators (p. 91). Despite the natural overlap, UX job advertisements seldom request that applicants have an educational background in technical communication, leading Redish and Barnum to argue that technical communicators must do more to “claim a seat at the UX table” (p. 95).
Claiming a seat may not be as difficult as one might think. Redish and Barnum (2011) point out areas of shared expertise between technical communication and UX, along with goals that are “similar and compatible” (p. 95). Additionally, the interdisciplinarity of UX allows for more entry points. Farrell and Nielsen’s (2013) survey of 963 UX professionals revealed that there was “no single defining characteristic of user experience careers” (p. 6). No one type of bachelor’s degree dominated; instead, respondents had a broad range of disciplinary backgrounds. When respondents listed the courses they had taken that were most helpful for a UX career, the list included courses a technical communication student might take: “presentation skills/public speaking, project management, graphic design, composition and layout, technical writing, typography, and persuasion and persuasive writing” (p. 52–53). Likewise, the summary of general UX skills and tasks reported by Farrell and Nielsen would look very familiar to a technical communicator. These include:
- Find and solve new problems in the evolving relationships between people and machines.
- Advocate for the humans in human-computer interaction.
- Plan customer experiences throughout the product and service lifecycle.
- Conduct research, design, and fix products and services to make them easier to use (p. 19).
In light of these overlaps, technical communicators should feel confident in their qualifications for UX jobs, regardless of whether those jobs request degrees or work experience in specializations other than technical communication.
This article provides empirical evidence in support of the argument that technical communicators are well qualified to move into UX or claim a more central seat at the UX table. We examined 502 UX job advertisements in an effort to map the UX landscape and identify intersections between technical communication and user experience. Our research highlights the education, experience, technology skills, professional competencies, and personal characteristics sought by UX employers; it also emphasizes characteristics and competencies that are shared between UX and technical communication. The data can help us better understand the anatomy of UX and, in turn, articulate the value added by technical communicators to the UX process.
Job advertisements are crafted with the specific goal of attracting candidates who best fit the employer’s needs. As such, the advertisements typically outline employer expectations, job responsibilities, required skills, preferred qualifications, and so on. Some degree of uncertainty is unavoidable regarding how closely the job description actually matches the day-to-day work of the person hired, but it is in the employer’s best interest to be as accurate, specific, and detailed as possible. Thus, an analysis of job advertisements can reveal patterns that provide insight into the core competencies that characterize the field.
We used industry job postings from Monster.com for our study, because it returned the highest number of technical communication jobs during our initial searches. We restricted our search to a single job site to avoid duplication of postings. For search terms, we used an extensive list of potential job titles constructed from previous research (Blythe, Lauer, & Curran, 2014), the STC job board, and an STC session preceding the 2013 Council for Programs in Scientific and Technical Communication (CPTSC) conference (see Table 1).
We collected two months’ worth of U.S. job postings; data collection took place from September to November of 2013, during which time we collected over 3,000 job postings. From this data, we culled duplicate postings, postings that provided no position description, and postings that were not within technical communication. We then looked more closely at the position descriptions and eliminated positions that were entirely tools-focused. That is, if a job description discussed exclusively technical work (back-end coding, executing pre-existing designs, etc.), to the exclusion of rhetorical work, we discarded it. The culling process left us with approximately 1,500 job postings that we separated into two groups: information development (ID: 914 jobs) and user experience (UX: 502 jobs). Here, we provide an analysis of the UX data and discuss overlaps and divergences between the ID and UX jobs.
After mining the job postings for position title, job type, education level, experience level, location, salary, and industry sector, we recorded the tools and technologies called for by each posting. We then conducted a content analysis (see Huckin, 2004) of the job descriptions to examine the competencies and personal characteristics expected of applicants, as well as the information products (documents, applications, etc.) they would be producing. We use the term competencies to refer to concrete practical skills (Henschel & Meloncon, 2014), such as written communication or project management. We use the term personal characteristics for less tangible abilities such as creativity, leadership, and flexibility—more abstract qualities that may be inherent as well as learned.
We developed a list of competencies and characteristics based on previous research findings (Rainey, Turner, & Dayton, 2005; Lanier, 2009; Blythe, Lauer, & Curran, 2014) as well as our own knowledge of the field. We also relied on an open coding process (see Holton, 2007) in which we examined several postings in order to identify, group, and label key concepts. To ensure consistency in coding, each of the authors independently coded 10 jobs; we then calculated the inter-rater reliability, which revealed that we had 96% agreement in our coding. The Kappa coefficient, which adjusts for chance agreement, was .90, where .81–1.0 is considered almost perfect agreement.
We begin by reporting the position demographics of the job ads followed by a discussion of the job categories, information products, tools and technologies, professional competencies, and personal characteristics called for in the position postings.
Over three-quarters (78%) of the UX jobs were full-time permanent positions, and the postings suggest that these positions are typically not entry level (see Figure 2), a finding that aligns with the survey data collected by Farrell and Nielsen (2013). Roughly one-third (34%) of the jobs required a minimum of 2–3 years of experience while another 28% required at least five years of experience. Additionally, many of the postings (19%) did not mention the years of experience required or stated explicitly that the experience level was open.
As the map in Figure 3 illustrates, the positions were concentrated on the East and West Coasts. Almost one-third (30%) of the jobs were in the Pacific census region, while the Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic regions each had 17%. By far, the greatest number of jobs was in California (24%) followed by New York (10%).
Similarly, rather than being distributed across a range of industry sectors, the UX positions were very heavily concentrated within the Information Technology Services/Software (IT) sector (39%), although the industry sector could not be identified in 14% of the postings (see Figure 4). The concentration of positions within IT supports the survey results reported by Farrell and Nielsen (2013).
Closer examination of the position titles enabled us to sort the job postings into five distinct categories: Designer, Developer, Architect, Manager, and Researcher (see Figure 5). These category divisions were based on the actual terms used in the titles (e.g., all positions categorized as Manager had “manager” in the title, all architect positions had “architect” in the title, etc.). The categories of Manager and Researcher had far fewer jobs, so the results for those categories may be less reliable.
Although the job titles suggested there were several different types of designer jobs, including user experience (UX) designer, user interface (UI) designer, and interaction designer, we grouped these into a single Designer category, because closer examination of the actual job descriptions revealed no discernable differences between, for example, a job that asked for a UX designer versus a UI designer versus an Interaction designer. Designer jobs, regardless of prefix, are primarily responsible for interface design and layout. However, designer appears to be the default job title when employers are looking for generalists who will be responsible for any and all stages of the UX process, from researching requirements, to developing personas, wireframes, and prototypes, to designing the interface, to building and testing the site or application. As a result, Designer jobs account for 61% of the positions.
In contrast with Designers, UX/Front End Developers (22%) are responsible primarily for the actual coding and construction of the interface or application. Developer positions comprised 22% of the job postings. However, it is important to note that the market for Developers is much more robust than our data suggest, because this is the category in which we culled the most jobs due to those jobs including no rhetorical work. For instance, many Developer jobs would describe the primary responsibilities of the Developer to be someone who would flawlessly code a website that had been architected and designed by another person or group within the development process. If coding and debugging were the primary responsibilities of the position at the expense of participating in the actual design process, we culled those jobs. Those Developer jobs we included in our data typically requested that the developer be able to code the site or application and that the developer would have some input into the design or structure of the site or application as well.
Experience/information architects (8%) are distinct from designers and developers in that their focus is on crafting the structure of the experience. That is, Architects determine how best to structure information, images, and other material to meet the user’s needs and ensure an effective experience.
UX Managers (5%) are leadership positions that typically require a person to oversee team members and the UX process as a whole; these are much more than just experienced UX professionals. Managers are also asked to develop strategy, manage projects, and interact with relevant stakeholders.
Finally, UX researchers (4%) focus almost exclusively on conducting and reporting the research needed to support the work of the other categories. That is, rather than creating the user experience, Researchers supply the critical groundwork for determining what that experience should be, and then they test the experience as it is being developed.
Two other factors set the job types apart from one another: education level and salary. Manager and Researcher positions were far less likely than the other categories to leave education level open; they were much more likely to ask for a master’s degree (see Figure 6) 1.
Although only 27% of the job postings included salary information, the salary information that was available again pointed to distinct categories of jobs. Postings for Designer, Developer, and Researcher positions were substantially less likely to include salary information than were postings for the other categories. Additionally, 100% of the Manager and Researcher positions for which pay information was included were salaried, while the other categories all included some hourly positions. In fact, over one-third (36%) of the Architect positions were hourly. In addition to differences across categories regarding how positions paid, there were some differences in how much they paid. As Figure 7 illustrates, the annual salary ranges for Designers and Developers were comparable. However, Architects and Researchers tended to have slightly higher minimums, and the high end of the salary range for Researchers was substantially more than the maximum of Designers, Developers, or Architects. One would expect Managers to be paid somewhat more, but, in fact, there was a striking difference between the Manager positions and those in the other four categories; the low end of the Manager salary range was just above the high end for Researchers. This may point to a shortage of experienced managers who can fill these positions due to the relative newness of UX as a field.
Grouping the jobs into categories enabled us to conduct more detailed analyses of the information products, tools and technologies, professional competencies, and personal characteristics required in each type of position. We discuss the results of these analyses in the sections that follow.
Information products are the deliverables that applicants will produce as part of their job. As Figure 8 illustrates 2, the majority of the information products for UX positions tend to be intermediary products that support the development of a final deliverable (e.g. a website). So, for example, wireframes, prototypes, and specifications/technical documentation were central to all job categories.
The Architect positions placed the most emphasis on these products, and Architects also produce a greater percentage of user profiles/personas and presentations.
Developer positions placed less emphasis on intermediary products than the other four categories. Prototypes, wireframes, and specifications/technical documents were still important, but Developer jobs focused much more heavily on producing the final deliverables of websites and applications.
Researcher jobs included the greatest variety of products, generally because they were tasked with testing the whole range of UX products and using their findings to improve the design of those products (e.g., wireframes, prototypes, interfaces). Researchers were also tasked, along with Architects and, to a lesser extent, Managers, with developing personas and delivering presentations. The most common products requested of Researchers included presentations and reports, which speak to the importance of effectively communicating the results of their research to others on the UX team.
Managers are tasked with overseeing the entirety of the UX process, so they have some responsibility over almost all products listed.
Tools and technologies
As Figure 9 illustrates, UX professionals rely on an array of tools and technologies to craft their information products, although the emphasis on technology does vary across job categories. 3
Professional competencies—workplace capabilities that are often taught explicitly in academic programs—were another factor on which the job categories varied, although there were clearly competencies that crossed several categories (see Figure 10).
Just as HTML, CSS, and Adobe CS were the top technologies across all UX positions except Researcher, interface design was critical for all positions, except Researcher. Visual communication and styles are high for all categories but especially critical for Designers, Developers, and Managers, who are charged with developing layouts and other graphical material for sites and applications. Responsive design is high across the board, revealing how necessary designing for a wide range of interfaces has become within UX.
UX principles are also high across the board, though slightly less for Developer, presumably because most principles and practices have already been implemented by the time the developer is tasked with building the actual site or application. Interestingly, the UX principles are largely undefined within the jobs data. Ad after ad would ask applicants to have, for example, a “deep and current knowledge of UX Design principles and best practices,” without further explanation of what those principles might be. This points strongly to there being a shared and consistent understanding of what constitutes UX principles and best practices, a perspective supported by UX professionals such as Cory Lebson, former president of the UX Professionals Association (personal communication, November 16, 2015).
Research, along with usability and testing, prove to be of significant importance across all categories, but especially Researcher, Architect, and Manager. A wide range of research methods was cited in the ads, including focus groups, surveys, interviews, card sorting, contextual inquiry, task analysis, eye-tracking, and field studies. Researchers were responsible for a broad range of competencies other than research and testing, most notably communicating with clients/customers, unspecified communication, and written communication. Oral communication was also more important for Researchers and Managers than for the other categories. This emphasis on communication speaks to the importance of being able to translate the results of research into actionable design recommendations to other UX team members.
With regard to individual categories, it is not surprising that Architect positions were most commonly tasked with information architecture, which largely pertains to the structuring of information and architecting the user flow and experience as a whole.
Ads asked Managers for the greatest array of competencies—virtually all competencies in Figure 9 are important to Manager positions. Managers and, to an even higher extent, Developers, were expected to understand and work with styles—Developers because they would be responsible for the CSS used in the development of sites and applications, and Managers because styles define the overall look of a project, for which Managers are ultimately responsible. Managers also, not surprisingly, had, by far, the highest percentage of jobs that asked for experience with project management.
Although there is some variation in personal characteristics called for by the different job types, this is the area in which there is the most consistency across categories (see Figure 11). If there is a single personal characteristic critical to every job type, it is collaboration, which was requested in over 60% of the jobs in each category; for Designers, Developers, and Architects, it was the most frequently mentioned characteristic. Independence/Initiative, while less prominent, was requested in at least one-third of the jobs in every category; this characteristic was especially requested in the Manager and Researcher jobs.
As Figure 11 illustrates, the Designer and Developer categories have very similar patterns, diverging primarily on the relative importance of time management, which was substantially more important for Developers, and creativity, which was, not surprisingly, more important for Designers.
Analytical/critical thinking and leadership were crucial in the Architect, Manager, and Researcher positions. For Architects, these two characteristics were equally important (56%) and were second only to collaboration (63%). For Managers, as would be expected, leadership was essential, requested in 88% of the job postings; however, analytical/critical thinking and collaboration were virtually as important (each at 80%). Every job in the Researcher category (100%) requested analytical/critical thinking, presumably because Researchers would be responsible for designing and implementing the most effective methods for investigating and testing the perspectives and actions of users—the results upon which so much of the UX design would be based. Although leadership was less visible for Researchers, it was still featured in 53% of the jobs.
Problem solving and interpersonal skills figure most prominently in the Manager and Researcher categories, where they are requested in over half of the jobs. In fact, for Researchers, interpersonal skills (68%) were as important as collaboration (68%). Researchers are required to interact with users as well as with UX development team members and other stakeholders, so managing those relationships is paramount.
It is worth noting that the Manager and Researcher positions called for a broader range of personal characteristics than positions in the other categories. That is, while the Designer, Developer, and Architect jobs also called for numerous characteristics, there was a relatively clear hierarchy of importance, with a small subset of characteristics that dominated each category. In contrast, the Manager and Researcher jobs gave more equal—and heavier—emphasis to a wider array of characteristics.
The UX data suggest that each of the job categories has a distinct profile in terms of information products, technology skills, professional competencies, and personal characteristics. Perhaps more importantly, though, the data also reveal competencies and skills that are common across job categories. Several of these are areas that overlap with more traditional technical communication positions, as we discuss in greater depth below.
A Comparison of User Experience and
Information Developer Jobs
In this section, we compare the data for UX jobs with our previously reported data for Information Developer (ID) jobs (see Brumberger & Lauer, 2015). ID jobs include more traditional technical writing jobs as well as jobs in areas into which technical communication has expanded—most notably, social media writing and content development/management.
The data reveal some notable divergences in UX and ID job demographics. Most striking is the marked difference in salaries, which may, in and of itself, be an incentive for technical communicators to look to transfer their skills into the UX market: UX professionals receive significantly better compensation for their work. On average, the hourly range for UX jobs was $31–$58, while the range for ID jobs was about two-thirds that amount, at $21–$37/hour. The gap is even larger in annual salaries. UX positions paid an average of $75,000–$110,000 per year, not including the manager positions, which capped at $140,000 per year. The annual range for ID jobs spanned $45,000 to $79,000 per year. In short, the lowest salaries for UX jobs were, for the most part, higher than the highest salaries in the technical communication market. The differential in salaries could be due, in some part, to a greater proportion of UX jobs in the Pacific region, which has a higher cost of living. However, this is unlikely to account for all of the salary differences.
A difference in required experience levels may also contribute to UX’s higher salaries: Our data revealed very few entry-level UX positions. Only 3% of the UX jobs required fewer than two years of experience, compared to 13% of the ID jobs. At the same time, there were substantially more senior-level UX jobs: 37% of UX positions called for 5+ years of experience, compared to 29% of ID positions.
Interestingly, the jobs data suggest that education may be viewed somewhat differently by UX and ID employers. Although approximately half the jobs in both areas required a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, there were proportionately more UX jobs that did not specify a preferred minimum education level: 45% in comparison to 32% of ID jobs. This may suggest that UX employers place more emphasis on what the applicant can do than on the applicant’s education. This emphasis on a candidate’s work versus education was also supported by the higher number of UX jobs that specifically asked for a portfolio of a candidate’s work. Over one-third of UX jobs (34%) asked for a portfolio, compared to just 3.5% of ID jobs that did so.
There is very little overlap in products between UX and ID jobs, except for technical documents, which figure prominently in both job types. However, technical documents play a slightly different role in the two areas. For UX jobs, technical documents are largely used to communicate instructions and specifications among team members (e.g., Designer and Developer, Researcher and Architect); they are rarely intended for end-users outside of the company. ID jobs also require the creation of internal specifications and instructions, but many of the technical documents produced in these jobs are developed to be used by an outside client or customer, and such documents are usually in the form of a user guide or help document. Although the majority of products that are commonly mentioned in the UX jobs may not be explicitly requested in ID jobs, some of them—e.g., mockups and wireframes—would certainly be familiar to technical communicators.
Tools and technologies
There is a much greater emphasis on technology in UX jobs than there is in ID jobs. Eleven technologies appeared in 20% or more of the UX job ads while only MS Office appeared in 20% or more of the ID jobs. There are some types of ID jobs (e.g., Content Developer) in which scripting and visual communication technologies such as HTML and Adobe CS figure more prominently, but on the whole ID jobs still have much greater emphasis on verbal content than UX jobs. In the case of UX jobs, frequently requested technologies, such as HTML and Adobe CS, are used to help structure and design Web products, which accounts for the pervasive need for familiarity with these technologies.
Competencies and characteristics
UX and ID actually have many more shared competencies and characteristics than they do distinct ones, as illustrated by Figure 12. The competencies and characteristics shown in the intersection of the Venn diagram appeared in least 20% of both UX and ID jobs. Attributes shown on the right were requested in at least 20% of the UX (but not ID) jobs, while those on the left were requested in at least 20% of the ID (but not UX) jobs.
The most important shared competencies and characteristics—that is, those cited in the highest proportion of jobs in both categories—were collaboration, visual communication, and written and oral communication, seconded by analytical/critical thinking, independence/initiative, research, time management, and facility with styles/style guides.
Again, one of the most notable areas in which UX and ID competencies differ is their emphasis on content. All of the ID-only competencies pertain to the development of what is primarily verbal content. Even subject matter familiarity and working with subject matter experts (SMEs) ultimately support the creation of content that is technically accurate. In contrast, the UX-only competencies are directed at creating what one job description referred to as “a blueprint for content”—the underlying design and structure that determine how users will interact with information.
Finally, it is interesting to note that creativity was called for in over one-third (38%) of the UX positions, but does not figure prominently among ID jobs (16%). Conversely, organization was requested in 34% of the ID jobs but only 16% of the UX positions. These numbers may point to a perception, whether true or not, that the work of UX professionals—Designers, in particular—is more free-flowing, innovative work, while the work of technical communicators should be well-ordered.
Although the UX and ID jobs diverge in the areas of products and technologies, the core competencies and personal characteristics identified in the job postings suggest that technical communicators are, overall, well positioned to adopt central roles in UX. This has numerous implications for technical communication practitioners and programs.
The data show that technical communicators are well-qualified to transfer or expand their skills into UX positions; however, several challenges must be addressed in an effort to ensure the success of this shift. Redish and Barnum (2011) have argued that despite technical communicators’ being qualified for UX work, there is a bias that exists against their being part of the UX process. Redish and Barnum note,
The problem may stem from misplaced attitudes or impressions. On the one hand, development teams, including UX specialists, often hold the stereotyped view that technical communicators are merely the ones who write the manuals and sometimes the online help. On the other hand, technical communicators can be complacent about their defined role as doc writers or lack the confidence to fight the stereotype of the box that they are perceived to be in. (p. 97)
To address these issues, technical communicators must think about and articulate their expertise in ways that foreground UX competencies.
Take, for example, employers’ perceptions about the importance of creativity to UX jobs. While creative thinking may help a designer differentiate the initial consumer experience of a website or application, it is rhetorical work grounded in user research that drives a user’s success with that site or application. Technical communicators specialize in this type of work and need to demonstrate to employers that it, rather than creativity, is at the heart of UX. However, technical communicators should also be prepared to show that creativity plays a role in their rhetorical work, just as it does in the design and development process.
Even more significant are perceptions regarding content as separate from UX. Technical communicators are, of course, well-versed in crafting and developing content. However, if they are going to make the case for a more central role in UX, they have two important arguments to make regarding content. First, they must articulate to employers their ability to design and structure content in order to facilitate users’ interactions with the range of information products, sites, and applications that span the entirety of a brand experience. Additionally, technical communicators must make the argument that, as Baruch Sachs, Senior Director of UX at Pegasystems, says, “The content is critical to the overall experience” (Six, 2015, para. 18). Nevertheless, there exists a perception that content and design are separate entities in the UX process, a perception that is misguided, especially as both designers and communicators must adapt their designs and content to the multiple interfaces and environments in which users interact with it. The user experience is most successful when design and content adapt in tandem and are crafted with shared awareness.
Likewise, the burden rests on practitioners and programs to make hiring managers aware of technical communication whose graduates can perform UX work beyond the development of written content. Technical communication coursework already prepares students to develop visual content and to structure, design, and test interfaces. For example, Meloncon and Henschel (2013) reported that 40% of the 185 undergraduate technical communication programs they reviewed require a course in document/information design, while another 29% offer an document design elective; 45% of the programs required a Web course, and 55% offered it as an elective.
What is much less visible in technical communication curricula are courses in UX and in research methods, both of which would better position new technical communication graduates for UX jobs. Meloncon and Henschel found that just 11% of programs required a course in usability, while only 8% offer a usability elective. Just under one-quarter (23%) required research methods, while 15% offered an elective methods course. The low frequency of these courses may point to the material being integrated across a range of courses within a major. However, to better prepare graduates for careers in both UX and technical communication, programs need to give more attention to these core competencies.
Because a portfolio of work is so often requested in UX job advertisements, it is vital that programs require them as part of a capstone course or final project for students. Students can demonstrate their familiarity with competencies, products, and technologies through course projects and personal work that they include in a portfolio. Many capstone portfolios are intended as an opportunity for students to reflect on how their work has met program outcomes, and thus, the portfolios provide a tool for programmatic assessment. It would be most useful for students, however, these projects instead were crafted to be professional portfolios, where students identify the kinds of jobs they are seeking and articulate how the work they include illustrates their skills and competencies for those jobs. This would in no way diminish the portfolio’s worth for assessment purposes; in fact, we contend that it would result in a more authentic representation of student learning. Simultaneously, it would increase the portfolio’s value for professional purposes, by allowing students to design their portfolio to meet individual career goals.
As more and more information is mediated exclusively by websites and applications, UX has tremendous growth potential. In a saturated and complex information landscape, UX provides the opportunity for technical communicators to more broadly apply their strengths as advocates for users. As Redish and Barnum (2011) argue, “Technical communicators are by training and necessity user-centered. . . Their goal is to make even complex interactions understandable and usable” (p. 92). If technical communicators claim a more central role in UX, they will be able to shape the user’s experience beyond content and usability, thereby improving interactions with information products at every stage of the process. Bringing with it higher salaries and a multitude of shared competencies with technical communication, UX is both an attractive and a viable career option for technical communicators.
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About the Authors
Claire Lauer is an associate professor in the technical communication program at Arizona State University. She teaches courses in visual communication, data visualization, and research methods. Her research has appeared in a range of journals, including Technical Communication Quarterly, Written Communication, Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Kairos, Computers and Composition, and Programmatic Perspectives. She is currently serving as chair of ACM’s Special Interest Group for the Design of Communication (SIGDOC). She is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eva Brumberger is an associate professor and head of the technical communication program at Arizona State University. She has worked in the computer industry as a technical writer and continues to do freelance writing and editing. Her research interests include visual rhetoric and document design, workplace and intercultural communication, and pedagogy. She has published in a variety of journals, has co-edited a collection on teaching visual communication, and serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Visual Literacy and Communication Design Quarterly. She is available at email@example.com.
Manuscript received 15 December 2015, revised 24 February 2016; accepted 15 March 2016
1 We order the categories by the number of jobs they represent, from greatest to fewest. Because Designer had by far the largest number of jobs, we sorted the rows by the Designer column.
2 Figures 8–10 list products, technologies/tools, competencies, and personal characteristics, respectively, that appeared in at least 20% of the job postings for any one of the categories.
3 Because Adobe CS includes several software programs, when job advertisements called for proficiency in Adobe CS, we also coded for the programs within the package: Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Acrobat, and Dreamweaver.