64.1, February 2017

A Vital Oasis of Credible Thought

Sam Dragga, Editor

This issue of the journal offers four exceptional articles, each bringing perceptive and considered insight to the practice of technical communication.

Russel Hirst’s “Stories from the Secret City: Ray Smith’s Art of Narrative as Rhetoric” is a case study illustrating the rhetorical power of narrative to support the mission of a nuclear power organization as well as its local community and wider industry. In making the case for the telling of stories in technical communication, Russel adopts the techniques he examines and immerses us in the “narrative knowing” he espouses.

Joanna Schreiber’s “Toward a Critical Alignment with Efficiency Philosophies” addresses the continuing challenge of technical communicators to explain their untapped potential contribution to their employers. Using observations of efficiency training sessions and documents generated in efficiency cultures, Joanna finds the language of efficiency management is a productive way for technical communicators to make the valued-added argument within their organizations.

In “The Image of User Instructions: Comparing Users’ Expectations of and Experiences with an Official and a Commercial Software Manual,” Menno de Jong, Bingying Yang, and Joyce Karreman report the results of two experiments with noteworthy findings. The first experiment asked participants about the expectations of official versus commercial (third-party) software manuals and discovered that commercial manuals were viewed more positively. The second experiment involved participants using the two kinds of software manuals and discovered that participants worked more effectively when they thought they were using a commercial manual. While the influence of perception on performance might be unsurprising, it does offer a challenge to the creators of official communications and raises important questions about the public perception of all official sources.

Lisa Meloncon’s “Embodied Personas for a Mobile World” reviews earlier studies about personas and, using a case study, proposes a revised and updated version of personas that is based less on demographic generalizations and more on real people of various levels of ability operating with specific goals and purposes in mobile environments. Lisa also offers a heuristic to guide implementation of the change she proposes.

As a reminder, none of these inspired articles emerged from the minds of their authors in the version that is published here. Each article was thoughtfully reviewed by three anonymous and critical reviewers who offered supportive comments but also questions and objections that guided the authors to major and minor revisions of their thinking. For example, about Russel’s article, one reviewer noted,

My main concern about the article is that it reads like an encomium—even a eulogy—as if celebrating the life of someone who has died or has achieved some milestone in life where uncritical praise on a special occasion is deserved. This article, however, is not offered as a eulogy or encomium but as a rhetorical analysis of the narrative practice of a particular communicator. The focus is supposedly not on the person or personality of the communicator but on his rhetorical techniques. Although there is certainly some attention given to classical rhetorical concepts and how they are deployed in Smith’s narrative practice, the focus of the article strikes me as primarily Smith himself, Smith’s character.

In revising, Russel tried to address this objection:

Reviewer 2 is concerned that the article praises Smith too much. Actually, Reviewer 3 shared this concern, and I did go back and look for places to tone down the praise where I could. For example, I changed the line referring to Smith’s manner of speaking from “friendly, relaxed, and authoritative” to simply “friendly and relaxed.” But the overall description of Smith and his art can’t shift much; it is true description and integral to the article. Smith is a version of Quintilian’s ideal orator—stronger in natural genius and extensive practice than in studied theory, but still the “Good man skilled in storytelling,” so he’s a figure described as admirable; those are the figures we’re motivated to imitate; his ethos is actually part of the rhetorical instruction here.

Similarly, a reviewer of Joanna’s article noted,

I find the development of the manuscript somewhat confusing. The bulk of it is a bibliographic study of previous work on management efficiency philosophies and their relationship to TC work, but it is not always clear what is the author’s thinking and what comes from others. The author’s stated main goal – to “re-contextualize” findings from two studies – does not in the end seem very useful to practitioners, mostly because almost no workplace examples are given of how Lean Six Sigma (LSS) can be used to establish the value of TC work.

And Joanna instituted several key changes as a consequence, explaining,

The original manuscript relied extensively on a review of management literature to establish the territory of this article. Reviewers found this both distracting and unnecessary for practitioners. Further, the example document I used insufficiently supported larger points.

In the revised manuscript, I ground the article with an IRB-approved study of Lean trainings. The 25 plus hour study over several months provides both additional evidence and an extended example.

I also added examples throughout the article to illustrate my points and adjusted the writing style to be less abstract and philosophical.

I added a second document to bring the development of efficiency culture (Lean training observations) into conversation with an example of an internal structural document and a customer-facing document.

These two documents provide examples of places where practitioners can make their value visible to management.

The article by Menno, Bingying, and Joyce was guided by this comment from a reviewer:

My main revision suggestion comes from a sentence by the authors that comes late in the article: “The research was primarily designed to focus on image, not on content quality.” In other words, the main thrust of this article was to assess the effect of perceived source (official v. commercial) of the manual. However, the analysis did not control for the actual content of the manuals themselves. It seems as if the authors are comparing official v. commercial for two different sets of content, but they collapse both sets of content into a single analysis rather than keeping them separate. I would prefer for their results analysis to keep those two sets of content separate.

The authors considered this advice and adapted it through several important changes of wording:

We think it is better to lay the cards on the table, and make explicit that the differences found between actual content versions should be treated with a lot of caution. We reread our manuscript, and found several instances that needed revision to express this message more unambiguously:

  • In the Abstract (Results), we deleted the sentence “(even though the content of the official manual worked better)”
  • In the Introduction (last paragraph), we replaced the phrase “and investigated the effects of both …” with “to investigate the effects of perceived source …”
  • In the introduction of Study 2 (first paragraph), we replaced the sentence “These experiences may be triggered by the actual content of the manual and by the perceived source” with “These experiences may be triggered by the perceived source of the manual, possibly in relation to its actual content.”
  • In the introduction of Study 2, we included three sentences to explain why we included actual content as a variable and make clear up front that a comparison of the effects of actual content is beyond the scope of our research (and why).
  • In the results section of Study 2, we removed an explicit comparison between the effects of perceived source and actual content (“There was an opposite effect …” = “There was also a main effect …”)
  • In the results section of Study 2, we immediately qualify the only significant effect of actual content (“As said earlier, this result must be treated with caution, as cannot be sure of the representativeness of the official and commercial manual excerpts for the complete manuals.”)
  • In the conclusions of Study 2, we removed the sentence about the effect of the manual content (“Regarding manual content, an opposite effect was found: the official manual worked significantly better than the commercial one.”)

A reviewer of Lisa’s article advised changes in organization and emphasis:

I suggest that the author revise the Implications section to list the benefits (the bulleted list) first.

Then, the author should say that doing observations and interviews to develop personas for a specific project is the best way to get realistic and relevant personas. That’s a key point. It should not be relegated to a parenthesis inside another sentence.

Then, the author should say that even if doing that user research isn’t possible, technical communicators can take advantage of what the author learned in the author’s case study observations and interviews. I suggest that it is important for the author to repeat that the suggestions in this paper come from a case study in which the author did meet the users.

So the conclusion is not that this is best when you can’t do user research. The conclusion is that remembering these three factors is always important. Incorporating these three factors can help you develop useful personas whether or not the technical communicators (or others on a team) can do user research.

As Lisa explains, she adopted this proposed change:

I have taken this advice and re-organized the implications section to bring to the forefront the benefits of the re-conceptualization of personas that I proposed and then to make clear that these ideas can be used when you can do user research with the users and even when you cannot.

I mention these examples of revision to emphasize how essential the review-and-revise process is to the clarity and accuracy of ideas finally made public. The opportunity for reviewers to consider ideas prior to worldwide distribution and to solicit more credible evidence for claims, to encourage more rigorous methods, to question interpretations of findings, or to propose changes to wording, organization, or emphasis all make for more cogent and substantive contributions to the knowledge of the field. This filtering of ideas by specialists yields better ideas. And in the hierarchy of ideas, I believe filtered ideas ought to be considered the closest to wisdom itself.

The proliferation of immediately available unfiltered information, however, especially in assertion-size chunks, has created a privileged position of ubiquity for the provocative but unsupported claim. And this privileging of unsupported claims makes investing time and resources in the meticulous gathering and analysis of evidence a more and more imperiled effort. At little or no cost, inaccuracies and falsities thrive in attention-getting superiority to certainties and actualities. Strident conjectures from prejudice sit equal to statistical probabilities and logical conclusions. Expedient distortions and exaggerations eclipse delicate distinctions of meaning.

In a boisterous environment of shrill voices and striking misinformation, this research journal is a vital oasis of conscientious and judicious thought and, I hope, a priceless resource for the cautious and scrupulous technical communicator.