Improving Research Communication

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Michael J. Albers, Guest Editor

The idea for this special issue came from a presentation I watched at the 2014 IEEE PCS conference by Ryan Boettger, Erin Friess, and Saul Carliner (2014), (note that Boettger and Friess have an article in this issue). According to the program’s session description, their presentation posed the claim that “the research and theory presented in peer-reviewed journals—including the ones in our field—are written by researchers for other researchers. As a result, this material is intellectually and emotionally inaccessible to practicing professionals.” In other words, the research that academics conduct is poorly communicated to practitioners.

Academics’ research is poorly communicated to practitioners. An unsurprising but disconcerting statement, considering that technical communication is inherently practical. Our field’s academics (especially those housed in English departments) pride themselves on the fact that they teach courses on writing in the corporate world. Further, their students not only secure jobs, but they secure these jobs within their majors. Yet, the research conducted by those same academics has trouble reaching and being usable to their recent graduates, much less other practitioners. If technical communication is supposed to be a social science discipline with practical application, then it stands to reason that its research should, if not be directly applicable, at least be understandable by those practitioners.

Simultaneously, there is a gulf on communicating practitioner needs to the academics. This gulf occurs at many levels. Of course, practitioners need answers for their projects; they need an answer for this specific situation now. For example, a practitioner may have a new Web interface and needs to know how to best implement X and do it by Friday. But academics don’t tend to think in those specific relationships. We (I include myself) tend to think more in terms of uncovering the fundamental issues that drive the answers to give implementations of X. A practitioner may need to know what background color works best with his or her audience demographics when the font color is green. The academic view is one of figuring out how the demographics affect the more general questions driving the font/background color contrast issues. In other words, academic research does not address a specific problem (what shade of blue font is best), but, rather, deals with the bigger problem that can be used by anyone dealing with colored fonts.

One of the scary things I realized reading the draft articles for this issue is that in 1995, when I took my PhD course in research methodologies, we spent a lot of time reading about “what makes a discipline.” To my distress, I wonder why, after 20 years, are two articles in this issue (Boettger & Friess and St.Amant & Meloncon) still circling around essentially the same question? An idea of “what makes a discipline” was a concept many of us students had a difficult time connecting to research, but the answers help define the common ground and let us say, “this is technical communication” and “this is not technical communication.”

If a research agenda is a defining attribute of a discipline, then divisions are worrisome (St.Amant & Meloncon, 2016). If the field is divided, especially if we are suffering from an ever increasing divide between academic and practitioner, we risk splitting into two fields. Or, in the formulations of those who write about defining disciplines, the academics may have a discipline (that contains minimal practical aspects) and the practitioners who would fail to meet the definition of a discipline (no clear research agenda). The important point of this split is not how the discipline gets defined but that there would be two disciplines. Each would go its own way with minimal interaction with the other and, eventually, the histories of the field will reference the “great split.” I sincerely hope there are no future texts talking about the great split, as its occurrence would be a great loss for both sides. If that text does get written, I fear it will put our current time well beyond the start of the “time of the great split.”

At one level, this can be considered a classic case of two parties talking past each other. Practitioners want answers to today’s problem and academics want to give answers to more abstract, global problems. And both think their questions/answers are most important. In a very real way, both groups fail to understand what the other group needs or expects when it comes to research.

Renguette, in this issue, examined the improvement in patient training when the current method is replaced by a multimedia presentation. We commonly use this structure to conduct our research; an academic spends time with a corporation, an improved product is released, and an article is published. Good start. We need to understand practitioner research needs. Now the real research begins. What part of the change caused the improved scores? What parts of the change were detrimental? What are the underlying human behavior factors to consider? How does the target audience influence those answers? These questions motivate more fine-grained studies—studies that a corporation will not hold up shipping a product for but which they can use in future products and other companies can use in their products. The first study is practitioner research. The second sequence is academic research; research that can be fed back to the practitioner community. A goal of this special issue is to extend these conversations and motivate more sustained feedback loops. St.Amant and Meloncon’s article provides specific ways to improve those loops.

For an example, let’s look at the size of icons on a webpage. Fitts’ law has been around for over 50 years and most designers will quickly quote it when making statements about target sizes. Let’s assume we didn’t have that knowledge. Practitioner research would care about designing the current set of pages. It would run some tests, decide this particular size works, and move on to finishing the product. It’s the academic researchers who need to see there is a problem with figuring out the proper size of the targets and doing the generalized study that would lead to the actual formulation we call Fitts’ law. An equation that helps everyone. A goal of this special issue is to try and start that conversation to begin those feedbacks loops.

Consider Hannah and Lam’s article (this issue) for a sense of what technical communication practitioners are currently discussing. For example, the authors found that DITA was the most frequent word used in tweets coded as technology, which represented about one-third of all tweets on technology. How much academic research has been done on DITA? How many courses, at either the undergraduate or graduate level, are offered that teach DITA or even the concepts of general XML? Practitioners are using DITA, they are applying content strategy, they are doing single sourcing. They know they are not doing them perfectly, but they also don’t have time or the research knowledge to figure out how to improve them. The questions they have and the information they need are not being communicated to the academic world. Of course, those questions may get transformed into a more general question, but that is not happening, because the conversations are not happening or the participants are talking past each other (e.g., Andersen, 2014).

Practitioners care deeply about the future of their field (Cleary, 2012). However, as Hannah and Lam found, their discussions differ greatly from academics in that practitioner conversations seem to return to a discussion about technology—a topic that academics historically have not studied regularly or nearly as often as rhetoric, pedagogy, or genre (Boettger, Friess, & Carliner, 2015). Accordingly, academics should consider engaging in rigorous, empirical research about specific technologies and tools beyond understanding their rhetorical potential, which is something that practitioners have called for (St.Amant & Meloncon, this issue).

Perhaps part of the failure of the conversation is because it seems that many PhD programs are shifting away from technical communication to emphasize the rhetoric surrounding technical topics. The programs educating our upcoming scholars, who will be teaching both future practitioners and academics, are missing part of those students’ future audience. In this issue, Boettger and Friess found that rhetoric was the only topic limited to academic publications. Rhetoric is a sub-field of the humanities and technical communication is (or should be) a social science that deals with human behavior and improving communication. (As I sit here in late July writing this, I can feel the hackles rising on the necks of some academic readers for daring to make such a claim.)

“Rhetoric should inform technical communication, but rhetoric, when explored in the abstract, is not technical communication” (Boettger & Friess, this issue). Technical communication research should ideally apply rhetorical strategies to offer explanations of technical communication processes and combine rhetoric with psychology theories of human behavior to provide strategies for better communicating information. St.Amant and Meloncon (this issue) had one of their practitioner interviewees mention needing to understand human behavior: “how individuals used a technology to achieve communication-based tasks and how technology design affects communication behavior.” Practitioners need research on human behavior and on effectively communicating information; that is what a social science researches. If we look at what gets published in our own academic research, we find very little that looks at these issues; sadly, the field suffers from a lack of empirical research, in general (Boettger & Lam, 2013). Empirical research can use rhetoric as one of its tools for studying how to communicate technical information and how human behavior affects the communication. Granted, we must also acknowledge the on-going discussion of research relevance versus fulfilling tenure requirements and dealing with non-technical communication members on tenure committees (Kynell &Tebeaux, 2009).

When we look at PhD curriculum, rhetoric spans across the courses in the programs. That seems to be the one staple curricular element with multiple courses looking at different aspects of rhetorical analysis. But, if we consider practitioner research needs, are technical communication programs are teaching enough usability and UX? Is it taught as a single course or does it have a solid underlying foundation for all of the courses, as rhetoric does? Do future technical communication academics receive enough training in usability and UX to teach, research, or practice them? Do future technical communication academics receive enough training in empirical methodologies in general (Albers, in press)? Without a solid foundation, it is difficult for it to become part of the discipline research agenda. Is this what is driving the academic world to be so different from the practitioner world? That is not where we want it to be and it would be highly detrimental to the future of technical communication as a profession and a social science.

On the academic side, we need to worry. The practitioner world is evolving at a high rate and the ivory tower is shielding too many people from seeing the change. I once had a full professor (who by any definition was a member of the “old guard”) tell me that our job was to teach students how to write—when they got jobs, they could figure out to apply that writing to their situations. And we most definitely only teach writing, never technology. However, I’m sure he equated software and technology; he saw teaching technology as a Word how-to course. That is not useful, but understanding technologies such as single sourcing or content management which then have to be applied to many different specific situations is very useful. The practitioner figures out a way for the technology to work; the academic has time to figure out if that way is efficient or if it can be improved. The end result is a cyclic and holistic approach to research that has relevance to more people than just the researcher. First however, we need to understand what practitioners consider important and to learn the current practices so we have a baseline for measuring the efficiency of new research. If technical communication is a practical discipline, then its research agenda should have a solid component focused on studying those practical aspects.

This brings up the question of why academics aren’t doing better research for themselves and/or better research for practitioners. It’s a complex problem with many facets. Working with practitioners, figuring out what is needed, and then doing that research is neither trivial nor “fast research.” There are competing demands on academic time, and too many tenure committees value quantity over quality. I’ve also heard some faculty say that technical communication is just a subset of composition/rhetoric—to which I can only say, NOT! Coupled with that is the issue that few PhD programs are providing enough empirical research training. So researchers are trained in rhetorical analysis and not empirical research. One consequence is that existing faculty publish rhetorical analyses so students believe that is what they should publish.

In the workplace, technical communicators are starting to call themselves documentation designers, content specialists, information architects, content strategists, and a dozen other names. But their work is often still the same job that technical communicators have been doing for years, mostly. That mostly is important, as many of those practitioners with those job titles lack a technical communication background. Job ads for these new titles list wanting degrees in many related disciplines, but technical communication is often missing from the list. When I was at the University of Memphis, I knew one person who was very active in the local STC chapter. A few years later, I meet her at the IA Summit, and she told me that since she had taken a job as an information architect; she had dropped out of STC. Academic technical communication research isn’t providing much support for information architect (or content strategists, for that matter). Library science now owns information architecture and houses the academic programs.

The train for information architecture has left the station, and we’re still on the platform. The train for content strategy is loading, and we don’t see too many academic researchers with tickets. More trains will leave until we learn to fit our research agendas and students’ needs into also helping meet the needs of practitioners. Boettger and Friess write that academics should ideally feed off the information provided by practitioners and that practitioners should thrive based on the research published by academics. Unfortunately, the primary finding in their study was that content forums for exchanging information were fulfilling the same needs they were in 1988 (this issue). Practitioners in general, and most definitely our students, are no longer working in the world of 1988. Is academic research still in 1988, or has it boarded its own train that runs on a separate, diverging track?

At this point, there is clearly a disconnect that needs to be addressed to improve communication about research between academics and practitioners. This issue contains five articles that look at that issue. As befits a complex issue, each one takes a very different viewpoint. Together, they help to create a foundation that can help us move forward on improving the flow of research information within the profession of technical communication.

Lauren and Pigg used social network analysis to examine interview data collected from eight technical communication entrepreneurs. Knowledge does not simply flow from academics to practitioners or vice versa. Most importantly, their analysis clearly shows that the conversation is multifaceted and cannot be simply viewed as an “us versus them.” Of all five articles, this one, because of its methodology, does the best job of building the big picture of the academic and practitioner divide.

Boettger and Friess analyzed the content within 1,048 published articles over a 20-year period within core professional and academic forums. They found differences in the topics that reflect the different interests of academics and practitioners. They also note that their results more or less match similar studies published over the past 27 years. Moving beyond the coding and analysis, they consider the implications of their findings and discuss ways to improve the communication of research findings and research needs between academics and practitioners.

Hannah and Lam examined practitioner blog postings to determine the consistent topics and article types. Not surprisingly, they found the most common topics were technology, professionalization, and communication strategies. Blogs have become a dominate method practitioners use to share knowledge, and academics should figure out how to use them to improve the sharing of research. During their analysis, Hannah and Lam came to a realization that “we are simply not having the conversation in the right way, in the right place, at the right time.” They put forth reasons for why our conversations move past each other and how to improve the overall quality of the conversation. A significant part of the need for this special issue exists because of this very problem.

St.Amant and Meloncon interviewed 30 practitioners to help establish how they viewed research and what they considered important. It is interesting that many articles—including those in this special issue—discuss communication research but seem to consider the definition of research as obvious. Yet, a practitioner’s view of it is not the same as an academic’s view. A practitioner’s results can help shape the conversation about improving communication by helping to clarify the audience on the practitioner side.

Renguette provides a focused example of how academics and practitioners can work together. She relates her experiences working on a team tasked with improving a patient education application for people considering bariatric surgery.

Collectively, these five articles reinforce the fact that, as with any highly complex set of interactions, there is no simple solution. There is no single answer for how to improve communication between practitioners and academics working within technical communication.

  • We need to see research as an interrelated, iterative cycle, with a goal of improving technical communication products.
  • We need to work on improving the conversation to allow communication rather than talking past each other.
  • We need to work on understanding practitioner and academic research needs and wants.
  • We need to remember we are all part of a single discipline and work to improve that discipline.

Perhaps after an owl brings my letter and I complete my time at Hogwarts (or its American equivalent), I’ll be able to wave my wand and bring about a solution. Until then, we’ll have to approach the problem from multiple angles and keep working to solve it. The future of technical communication depends on it.

References

Albers, M. (in press). Quantitative data analysis in the graduate curriculum. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication.

Andersen, R. (2014). Rhetorical work in the age of content management: Implications for the field of technical communication. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 28, 115–157.

Boettger, R. & Lam, C. (2013). An overview of experimental and quasi-experimental research in technical communication journals (1992–2011). IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 56, 272–293.

Boettger, R. K., Friess, E., & Carliner, S. (2014). Who says what to whom? Assessing the alignment of content and audience between scholarly and professional publications in technical communication (1996–2013). Paper presented at the Proceedings of the IEEE 2014 International Professional Communication Conference, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Cleary, Y. (2012). Discussions about the technical communication profession: Perspectives from the blogosphere. Technical Communication, 59, 8–28.

Kynell, T., & Tebeaux, E. (2009). The Association of Teachers of Technical Writing: The emergence of professional identity. Technical Communication Quarterly, 18, 107–141.

St.Amant, K., & Meloncon, L. (2016). Addressing the incommensurable a research-based perspective for considering issues of power and legitimacy in the field. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication. doi: 0047281616639476

About the Guest Editor

Michael J. Albers is an STC Fellow and a professor at East Carolina University. He is the founder and chair of the annual Symposium on Communicating Complex Information (SCCI). His primary teaching areas are editing and information design. Before earning his PhD, he worked for 10 years as a technical communicator and performing interface design. His research interests include communication of complex information and human-information interaction. He can be reached at albersm@nullecu.edu.

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