Purpose: The authors, one a researcher and one an international community strategy practitioner, illustrate community strategy work as a multi-faceted localization practice that intersects with user experience design and user localization. We argue that localized community strategy is crucial not only to practice that aims for inclusivity and social justice but also to research and theory building that aims for inclusivity and social justice.
Method: We model a dialogic, localized knowledge-making process that operates at the level of collaborative research between a theorist and a practitioner and at the level of international practice. The authors collaboratively analyzed the experiences of the practitioner, as well as our own collaboration process, and coded them for key dimensions, which can guide and be further developed both in practice and in research.
Results: The authors identify and discuss four key dimensions of a community strategist’s localization practices—localizing communities, localizing goals, localizing communication, and localizing inclusion—and illustrate them both in our own collaborative practice of analysis and in the practice of international community strategy.
Conclusion: The definitions of user, community, and diversity themselves must be continually localized in our work to engage across cultures and across theory and practice. We call for further collaboration and research at the intersections of international community strategy work with technical communication and global user experience, particularly the role of localizing diversity and inclusion.
Keywords: community strategy, user localization, diversity, inclusion, social justice
- Localization, audience analysis, and cross-cultural communication are important practices in our field. Community strategy work supports and extends these practices by emphasizing relationship building and a deep understanding and support of communities. Collaboration among international community strategists, technical communicators, and global user experience researchers—or implementing their combined practices—can lead to more effective communication, more responsive technology design, and more meaningful engagement of communities.
- Practitioners committed to social justice and inclusion can benefit from the practices of and collaborations with community strategists.
- Definitions of diversity, inclusivity, and community in our practice should be products of meaningful, localized engagement, not assumptions we start with.
Technical Communicators in Cross-Cultural, Socially Just Engagement
Technical communication researchers and practitioners are recognizing the importance of cross-cultural, cross-contextual engagement in our increasingly globalized work (see, for example, Getto 2014, 2015; Jones, 2014; Herrington, 2010; Starke-Meyerring, Duin, & Palvetzian, 2007). Communicating competently and effectively across geographic and cultural differences demands a skillful and dynamic coordination of audiences, meanings, and technologies: St.Amant and Rich (2015) emphasize the importance of creating and sustaining interactive communities as a means of effectively engaging and communicating across physical and cultural boundaries. Indeed, while our commitment to knowing and engaging our audiences remains foundational to our work, a focus on globalization brings to our attention both the possibility for wider engagement and the need to communicate effectively across differences.
Key to this globalized, cross-cultural work is localization, the practice of contextualizing technologies (Sun, 2006, 2012; Suchman, 2002) and meanings (Gonzales & Zantjler, 2015) in specific communities. As Breuch (2015) explains, drawing on Sun (2012), localization involves “paying attention to the characteristics and needs of a particular culture, population, or even individual” as a way to “resist stereotypical characterizations of culture that may manifest when we think of ‘globalization’” (p. 114). Breuch offers “glocalization” as “an approach that strives to balance both universal (broad range of cultures) and particular (specific cultures) needs and concerns” (p. 114). Both glocalization and localization bring together the shared concerns of technical communicators and user experience researchers: As Breuch notes, to put localization into practice, communication and UX researchers must engage more closely with the people for whom they are designing. A shared concern for engaging audiences and communities is at the heart of the field’s exploration of the expanding definitions of technical communication (Henning & Bemer, 2016), particularly in relationship to user experience (see, for example, Getto, 2014; Lauer & Brumberger, 2016; Redish & Barnum, 2011; Redish, 2010). It is precisely the need for sustained engagement upon which the present study seeks to build and expand. We describe a collaboration between a researcher (Shivers-McNair) and a practitioner (San Diego) that led to an analysis and articulation of the importance of international community strategy work both to the practice and to the research of localized global user experience and cross-cultural communication, and also to social justice research and practice.
A growing body of scholarship emphasizes the importance of empathetic, social justice-oriented approaches to this cross-cultural, cross-contextual engagement (see, for example, Agboka, 2013; Crabtree & Sapp, 2005; Jones, Savage, & Yu, 2014; Scott, Longo, & Wills, 2006; Walton, Mays, & Haselkorn, 2016). Indeed, social justice research and practice shares with cross-cultural communication approaches a commitment to localizing information and design for specific communities and audiences, with attention to working across differences (see Kerschbaum, 2014), and to building and supporting interactive, dynamic communities. Crucially, social justice work aims not only for cross-cultural communicative competence but also for advocacy and change. Agboka (2013) offers a synthesis of perspectives on social justice that includes “‘advocacy for those in our society who are economically, socially, politically, and/or culturally underresourced’ (Frey, Pearce, Pollock, Artz, & Murphy, 1996, p. 110)”; “communion, cooperation, and liberation (Crabtree, 1998)”; and “inclusiveness, dialogue, and passion (Artz, 1998)” (p. 28). Or, as Jones and Walton (forthcoming) put it, social justice work should be “a collaborative, respectful approach that moves past description and exploration of social justice issues to taking action to redress inequities” (n.p.). Furthermore, social justice concerns encompass not only our methods and practices but also our theories, definitions, and sites of focus. For example, Jones, Savage, & Yu (2014) argue that increasing diversity in the field should change not only the demographics of the field but also the practices and concerns of the field. Grabill & Simmons (1998) and, more recently, Walton, Mays, & Haselkorn (2016) have argued that technical communicators committed to understanding and practicing culturally sensitive social justice work should expand their research purview beyond traditional business organizations to include non-profit and humanitarian organizations.
We build on this work by highlighting the intersections of technical communication, user experience, and community strategy work through the lens of localized social justice and inclusion advocacy. Indeed, our commitment to social justice in both research and practice shaped the nature of our collaboration and, in turn, our methodology and methods, as we describe below. Following Walton, Zraly, and Mugengana (2015), who present both their research process and their research findings as their argument, we offer both our dialogical collaboration between a theorist and a practitioner and our exploration of the connections between community strategy work, user experience, and localization as our argument for decentralized and localized approaches to the generation of theory and practice. Specifically, we argue that the characteristics of community strategy we highlight here—localizing communities, goals, communication, and inclusion—are at the heart of the overlap of cross-cultural technical communication, global user experience, and social justice work. We begin by defining community strategy, then we illustrate its multi-faceted localization practices in theory-building and in practice. We conclude with a discussion of the limitations of our study and possibilities for further collaboration and practice.
Intersections in the Practice of Community Strategy
We chose to use the term community strategy because it is how San Diego, a practitioner, describes her work and because we want to emphasize how essential both community and strategy are to the work. Following researchers like Spinuzzi (2015) who note the rise of all-edge adhocracies (dynamic, rhizomatic, nonhierarchical organizations), we illustrate community strategy as an adhocratic practice that exceeds the scope of a traditional bureaucratic organization. We describe community strategy in terms of the practices it shares with technical communication and user experience, particularly listening (Breuch, 2001), responsivity (Long, 2014), and audience analysis (Ross, 2013), in addition to localization, in the hopes that more collaboration and research will carry forward these fruitful intersections and complementary practices.
At its most abstract, community strategy is bringing people together in ways that center shared goals through localization. Specifically, community strategy bridges developer localization, which Sun (2012) defines as “the localization work occurring at the developer’s site that we commonly refer to when thinking of localization,” and user localization, which is “energetic user efforts of using a technology within meaningful social practices and incorporating the technology into one’s life” (p. 40). To connect developers and user communities, San Diego draws on her knowledge and experience in hardware and software—one example is in her producing a tutorial that implemented a past employer’s microcontroller along with coding instructions for a simple solution for finding a phone set on silent for hackster.io, an online community focused on hardware. She also organized the DevRel Summit, a one-day conference featuring talks and workshops focused on professionalizing and supporting people who work in developer relations (which involves connecting platform and API providers with developer communities). As a cofounder of a makerspace in Seattle, for example, San Diego focused on assembling a team with different and complementary skillsets (in hardware, software, and management), experiences, perspectives, and identities, and she focused on leveraging those team members’ networks and skills to connect with local communities. And as an advocate for inclusivity in technology industries, San Diego works to create online and in-person communities of support—be it a Slack channel for people of color in hardware and software industries around the world or a Women Who Code meet-up in Seattle.
The focus on communities and their goals is also why we prefer community strategy to a term like growth hacking, though, again, community strategy can certainly include growth hacking. In addition to the resistance to the term growth hacking San Diego has encountered from colleagues in software and hardware development (who are concerned about who and what is being hacked), we also note that growth is not always the desired or best outcome for the developer, provider, or the community. Community strategy emphasizes the localized nature of outcomes and the importance of tailoring both the nature of the engagement and the measure of that engagement’s success to the community, rather than imposing a set of goals or assumptions. Localization of engagement is another point of connection between community strategy and global UX, especially, which, as Quesenbery and Szuc (2012) emphasize, demands that assumptions be laid bare and open to change based on deep, immersive knowledge of a user community.
The emphasis on strategy in the name community strategist highlights the skills involved in building relationships, connecting complementary differences, and localizing developer and community goals. Indeed, a community strategist cultivates a global network of people with diverse skills, identities, and experiences, covering a range of organizations, cultures, languages, and geographical locations, in order to be able to wield that network effectively for specific purposes—whether it is connecting a Polish data science company with niche U.S. markets, or connecting a person of color who may feel alone in his workplace with a community of other people of color in working in technology.
Furthermore, the tactics a community strategist employs are rhetorical and user-centric, and the community strategist, like technical communicators and user experience researchers, plays an important role in the user localization process. The product may no longer be in its initial development by the time the community strategist is involved, but the community strategist helps an organization anticipate and facilitate user localization processes, which, in turn, can lead to refining not only marketing and technical materials but also the product or service itself as well as organizational practices. Technical communication is important to community strategy, whether it is writing a DIY tutorial for a product to engage online communities or localizing Web content for a niche market.
Likewise, user experience is important to community strategy: the community strategist’s goal is to create a positive, useful first experience (rather than merely a first impression), and the strategist carefully creates environments and situations for that initial experience, drawing on rhetorical knowledge of the community. Like UX researchers and technical communicators, community strategists intervene rhetorically in the complex nexus of markets, technologies, developers, and communities. Murray and Ankerson (2016) analyze the challenges faced by the developer of a lesbian dating app in balancing user preferences with funding demands. Specifically, lesbian users desired a distinctly queer and slow mode of temporality (not rushing to a hookup, in contrast to gay apps like Grindr), but the startup world and capital providers demand quick pathways to traditional revenue generators like matching, chatting, and meeting up with other users. While Murray and Ankerson do not mention a community strategist in their analysis, the challenges they describe are precisely those that a community strategist is well positioned to navigate, along with UX researchers and technical communicators. As Lauer and Brumberger (2016) point out, rhetorical skills are as essential to user experience as creativity.
Finally, an ability to work empathetically and effectively across differences—not only race/ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, language, culture, and ability, but also skill sets, goals, and situations—is at the heart of community strategy, much like technical communication and user experience. Social justice and inclusion advocacy are central to the work of community strategy, and we would argue that they are also central to the work of globalizing UX. As a Filipino-American woman who grew up in poverty in Oakland, California, San Diego is aware of and strategically wields her embodiment of diversity in technology as a way not only of demonstrating the importance of inclusion but also as a way of supporting others who are marked as different. She draws on her own experiences of working across cultures and differences to help companies, organizations, and developers do the same, and key to this work is treating inclusion itself—like the communities, technologies, and goals—as a localized practice. And even when a client’s goal is not explicitly to reach or include “diverse” communities, San Diego’s own commitment to cultivating diversity—in many different forms—in her networks and contacts means that a broader, more inclusive reach is embedded in her work, which can ultimately benefit both her client and the communities she connects. If we are truly committed to globalizing UX and to localizing user communities, then inclusivity and advocacy—as themselves localized practices—should be woven into every part of the process. Furthermore, just as Breuch (2015) argues that glocalization “need not be limited to international contexts, businesses, or designs” and “can inform our understanding of cultural differences within regional and national boundaries” (p. 114), we argue that these characteristics of community strategy are scalable from local to international contexts.
Because our approach to collaboration is as much a part of the exemplification of community strategy as San Diego’s professional and advocacy practices, we present a detailed description of our collaborative process in the hopes that other theorists and practitioners may find it a useful model. We then present our analysis of San Diego’s professional and advocacy practices. Specifically, the two facets of our analysis cover 1) our own collaborative work in six collaborative sessions over the course of nearly a year, and 2) San Diego’s experiences (with examples drawn from her freelance international community strategy work, her work with the international organization Women Who Code, and her role cofounding a Seattle makerspace, all over the course of two and a half years).
Localizing Researcher and Practitioner Communities and Goals
Our collaboration began when Shivers-McNair interviewed San Diego (via Skype) for an ethnographic study of the Seattle makerspace San Diego cofounded. San Diego had moved from Seattle to San Francisco when Shivers-McNair began her study of the makerspace. Shivers-McNair asked San Diego about diversity and representation in the makerspace, since there were no women and relatively few people of color who were regulars in the makerspace, despite San Diego’s efforts to advocate for diversity and inclusivity before she moved. San Diego remarked that simply declaring an intention to be inclusive was not enough, and that it was important for people to see someone like themselves—for example, another woman, another person of color—in a space.
At this point, what had begun as a semi-structured ethnographic interview turned into an energetic discussion of issues of diversity and inclusion in the maker movement and in technology industries, since we had both been thinking about and observing these issues from our different perspectives as a researcher and a practitioner, and as a white woman (Shivers-McNair) and a woman of color (San Diego). We both articulated that these were issues we wanted to write about, both for academic and industry publications, and we agreed to collaborate and keep thinking and talking about inclusion, access, and social justice. Over the course of nearly a year, our ongoing, collaborative analysis revealed to us four key dimensions of community strategy practices: localizing communities, localizing goals, localizing communication, and localizing inclusion. While we initially identified these dimensions in our interpretation of San Diego’s work as a practitioner, we realized they also applied to our knowledge-making collaboration.
Over the course of the next few months, after our initial conversation, we explored, in periodic, brief conversations held over Facebook Messenger, what diversity means, and we quickly established that diversity is not a global or definite term; it is local and contextual. We also began drafting a research plan to explore these issues for an academic study, with additional deliverables for other professional and community-focused venues, because we wanted our collaboration to support theorists and practitioners both through national and international publication venues and through local interactions. San Diego returned to Seattle, and we began meeting in person to generate data for our collaborative case study of her work as an international community strategist and inclusion advocate. At the first of our in-person meetings, Shivers-McNair took up a more-or-less traditional researcher role, asking open-ended questions about San Diego’s experiences, practices, and goals as a community strategist, and recording her responses (via audio-recording and typed notes). The conversation tacked between specifics of experience and the principles and logics behind those experiences.
The following questions were generated in Shivers-McNair’s interview of San Diego about her role in the makerspace she cofounded, and they became more and more specific over the course of multiple conversations and collaborative analysis. Some of the broader questions were revisited to fill in more information.
- What is community strategy?
- How do you define diversity and social justice?
- How did you get into community strategy?
- What are your goals as a community strategist?
- How do you connect with potential clients, particularly international ones?
- What is your process for international consulting?
- What information and communication technologies (ICTs) do you use, and how and why?
- How do you frame your services and relationships with clients (in terms of length of time, scope, etc.)?
- How do you connect with meet-ups in your clients’ target markets?
- How do you follow up with or stay in touch with people at the meet-ups?
- How do you balance your passion for diversity advocacy with the goals of your clients?
Most broadly, we were working to define international community strategy in relation to global UX, technical communication, and social justice advocacy. While our initial goals were focused on our respective researcher and practitioner communities, our collaborative localization work brought both our goals and communities together. For example, San Diego connected Shivers-McNair with other practitioners in the Seattle area, and San Diego facilitated a discussion and workshop in Shivers-McNair’s undergraduate technical communication course at the University of Washington.
Localizing communication between researcher and practitioner creates a dialogic framework for data generation and analysis
Just as San Diego advocates for combining both in-person and online engagement in her practice (as we discuss further below), our collaboration made strategic use of both in-person conversations and technology-mediated co-analysis and co-writing. After our first in-person meeting, Shivers-McNair transcribed the conversation and created a shared document with San Diego. In that document, Shivers-McNair conducted a quick, loose initial coding similar to the first step of grounded theory, as Charmaz (2006) describes it. Following an in vivo coding practice (Saldaña, 2009), Shivers-McNair underlined phrases that San Diego had emphasized as important or that were repeated or appeared to be part of a pattern or theme. We met again to go back through the notes, to fill in more data and information, and to discuss the emerging themes and categories. The bolded phrases below represent attempts at initial categorizations that were as much intended to generate more discussion as they were to analyze. The underlined and bolded phrases are extracted and represented here in list form, but at the time of analysis, they were annotations to the original transcription in our shared document.
Community strategy work/Strategist-as-ambassador
- Strategist – you can’t just get a bunch of people together; there needs to be complementing skill sets, understanding the types of people needed to get stuff done
- Outreach to communities with less access to tech
- Find someone else in another city who wants to do the same thing, then build structure to make it easier for others.
- Trip to Europe this year: audiences, you actually need a niche audience; I help them get into the U.S. market, being a representative, helping them understand that because there are so many different types of markets to start off. People need to be open minded, trust that I knew what to do in order to get them there.
- You have to understand community and who you’re serving.
- Being face to face gives them a more substantive relationship that can’t be recreated online.
- In-person demo helps you control the temperature of how it’s received.
- Strategy is important – you have to understand when to bring people in.
- As a strategist, you have to know what’s out there.
- The more you’re exposed to communities, the more you realize what you can contribute to communities.
- You want to be able to resonate with their end user, that’s not a technical thing, that’s a human thing.
- You want to respect the community.
- You need to walk through things to see if the next step makes sense; even if you know what’s ahead, be patient and understand where people are coming from in terms of execution.
- Making connections: In communities, you’re doing this because you want to learn, you don’t want to fail your team, but you’re also exploring.
Diversity (in tech, in networks; defining)
- This highlights an important thing: there are groups out there who aren’t trying to limit diversity, they just don’t know how to make it happen. Trusting me was the best thing they could do.
- That’s why diversity is so important in tech. Not just color of skin, but age, class, upbringing all in play. Everyone wants to see resonance somehow. Seeing someone like you.
- This is something I’m constantly thinking about, especially because it’s not always feasible in some places. How do we help allies succeed? How do we open that up? Perceived leaders/influencers should be the ones adding their voices.
- What’s even more important is keeping women IN tech; numbers show women in tech are dropping because we’re not getting the environment we need to thrive.
- Understanding all these different types of groups in the hopes that one day we will find common ground.
Technologies/online tools for strategists
- Translating websites into demographic-specific U.S. English.
- Any type of community management or strategist – another language they need to be able to speak is online, communicating in blogs, Slack, social media. Still dependent on human moderation. For me it was just using it.
- Make technology use contextual.
In a follow-up meeting, San Diego then took Shivers-McNair’s initial loose coding and generated a more concise, prioritized list of core practices, which we then began connecting back to the data, and which prompted more data generation. The following categories and subsets emerged in a follow-up conversation, during which more examples and analogies were also generated. We began to envision these as potential sections of our discussion.
After another conversation that included more data generation and simultaneous analysis (particularly in thinking through relationships between practices and experiences and abstracting principles), as well as discussion of a working outline for the manuscript, we saw that localization was common to all the categories and realized that our categories were, in fact, dimensions of a community strategist’s localization practices. We also divided the “relationships” category into “localizing communities” and “localizing goals” to better represent the complexities of those processes. We also revised “localizing diversity” to be “localizing inclusion” to emphasize the active nature of inclusion.
Localizing inclusion in social justice research means writing with, not about
We see the collaboration of a researcher and a practitioner as central to our method and our methodology (by which we mean the logics and principles behind our approach to the study). A researcher-practitioner collaboration offers three important affordances for knowledge-making. First, by including a practitioner as co-constructor of the data and the analysis and interpretation, we take up Blyler’s (2004) call to decentralize researcher authority in the hopes that our goals and findings will be more useful—both for researchers and for practitioners, as Grabill (2012) advocates. In this way, we are moving beyond the traditional member check or participant check approach, wherein results of analysis are presented to participants for confirmation, and toward the transformative data analysis model described by Alsup (2010), wherein the researcher maintains open communication with participants throughout the process with the goal of reciprocity, as a strategy for social justice research that can support the flexibility and reflexivity described and advocated for by Jones (2014). Like Koelsch (2013), we treated member checks as part of the data collection process, not simply as a validity measure at the end of the analysis, and this transformed our relationship from researcher and participant to researcher and practitioner as co-authors.
Table 1. Categories and subsets of core practices
|gender||making connections||human/in person (meetups, networks, feedback in person)|
|race||being an example/visible (also diversity)||digital/online (Slack, hackster.io, Google slides, email, twitter)|
|age||mentoring (also diversity)||hardware (microcontroller, laser cutter)|
|class||listening, asking how can I help|
Table 2. Revised categories and subsets of core practices
|￼Localizing communities||￼Localizing goals||￼Localizing communication||￼Localizing inclusion|
|making connections||listening to and respecting community||balancing face-to-face and online engagement||including more people, broadening beyond the “usual” (white male/ privileged) channels|
|bringing people together strategically||bringing community and client goals together||localizing first experiences||diverse networks lead to diverse connections and users for clients|
|making/materializing networks||research heuristic||localizing technologies for outreach||mentoring and support structures for sustainability|
Second, the balance of insider and outsider perspectives enriches the analysis of the data, as Walton, Mays, and Haselkorn (2016) demonstrate. Mays provided an insider perspective and entrée to the humanitarian culture being examined; Walton and Haselkorn provided an outsider perspective. In our study, San Diego provided an insider and practitioner perspective, while Shivers-McNair provided an outsider perspective. More specifically, San Diego’s experiences are the data for our case study, but equally importantly, her insights into the values and practices of community strategy were key to our collaborative analysis, particularly in generating and prioritizing categories. Shivers-McNair drew on researcher practices like open-ended interviewing to structure the data generation and collection and also drew on a grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Corbin & Strauss, 2014) approach to collaboratively analyzing the data.
Third, and finally, we believe that embracing and accounting for the messiness of researcher-practitioner collaboration is essential for research and work toward globalizing UX, particularly since, as Quesenbery and Szuc (2012) point out, global UX increasingly requires teamwork that connects researchers (academic and professional) with local practitioners. Walton, Zraly, and Mugengana (2015) and Fleckenstein, Spinuzzi, Rickly, and Papper (2008) call for transparency about not only research phenomena but also the often-messy processes by which we arrive at phenomena. Thus, we account here for our knowledge-making process, from the formation of our collaboration to the generation of data to the analysis, interpretation, and presentation of the data. In what follows, we turn to the second facet of our argument: international community strategy in practice.
Localizing communities across geographic and cultural boundaries involves networking and net work
In an age of all-edge adhocracies (Spinuzzi, 2015) where professionals rely increasingly on their own dynamic, highly connected (but also highly permeable) networks instead of the structures of a traditional, hierarchical company, cultivating a global network of individual and community contacts that can be localized for specific clients and purposes is an essential practice. This networking practice, which is central to community strategy, complements and meshes with the aims of technical communicators to construct networks, which Read and Swarts (2015) describe as a “working, coordinated configuration of actors in a setting that affords such a configuration” (p. 15). And as Read and Swarts’ definition suggests, networking is a localized practice. In this sense, a community strategist is continually seeking out individuals and communities. These connections are grounded in shared interests and experiences, with the understanding that future opportunities may present themselves to recontextualize those connections for a new purpose, as in Getto’s (2017) articulation of “user experience design as a form of networked rhetorics” (p. 15).
Meet-ups are central to San Diego’s community strategy work because they allow her to connect with existing communities and facilitate connections across communities. For example, San Diego’s involvement in the Seattle chapter of the global organization Geek Girls Carrots—which focuses on attracting women to and supporting them in technology industries, and which hosts meet-ups—led to her making connections with the chapter in Warsaw, Poland, which in turn led to San Diego visiting Warsaw for what she calls a working holiday. There she attended a local start-up meet-up and met people looking to expand their software solutions company into U.S. markets. After a follow-up meeting to discuss goals, and during which San Diego advised the potential clients to focus on their data science service for U.S. markets, the company contracted San Diego for international community strategy services.
Connecting and localizing communities and networks is a material practice, both in the sense that it has material effects and in the sense that the connections involve articulations of both humans and nonhumans (like infrastructures, technologies, and documents), as Read and Swarts (2015) have observed. San Diego observes that her experiences growing up in a low-income neighborhood taught her to be resourceful: Without access to capital, relationship-building was key, because it facilitated bartering with more than money and honed her ability to understand value as localized in particular moments in particular places for particular people. And in connecting provider companies with meet-ups, she uses her physical presence, textual and visual rhetorical elements (usually a presentation), and (depending on the product) physical objects to localize and materialize—both in an economic sense and in a physical sense—network connections between designers/providers and users/communities. But the users of one day’s network may become the providers of another day’s network, which is why we prefer the term community to user—to emphasize ongoing connections and relationships even as roles of user, designer, and even strategist change or evolve in different interactions.
But the nature of the connections and networks assembled is crucial. A community strategist, much like a technical communicator, expertly and carefully assembles people, texts, knowledge, information, and things in complementary ways to accomplish a goal. Long (2014) points out that, for technical communicators, responsiveness to those engaged is a rhetorical art that resists routinization. Similarly, a community strategist’s work centers responsiveness. By cultivating a careful knowledge of the skills, experiences, and strengths of the people, systems, and technologies she knows, San Diego is able to materialize networks with complementary strengths and goals. Furthermore, because she is concerned about sustainability beyond her own involvement, her work to materialize networks involves attention to creating network infrastructures—not only assembling complementary strengths and goals but also creating precedents for effective communication, organizational, and interactional practices.
Localizing goals across communities requires rhetorical skills
As an intermediary between designers/providers and user communities, a community strategist—like technical communicators and user experience researchers—practices listening (Breuch, 2011), responsiveness (Long, 2014), and audience analysis (Ross, 2013), both for clients and communities. San Diego prioritizes listening to and respecting the goals of communities, because meaningful engagement and support of communities is foundational to successful community strategy. Ultimately, her work involves localizing the goals of both communities and providers through careful listening, understanding, and connecting. San Diego relies on the following heuristic for learning about the goals and interests of the people she meets:
- What brought you [here]?
- How do you know [person]?
- How did you hear about [event]?
- What do you want to get out of [event/talk]?
- How can I help you?
Sometimes San Diego moves through this heuristic fairly quickly, as in the case of a conversation with a potential user at a meet-up. But when she is working across cultures, she emphasizes time and observation, in addition to listening, as key to generating meaningful cross-cultural, cross-community understanding, just as Quesenbery and Szuc (2014) emphasize immersion (as opposed to research, which suggests a more limited engagement) as key to globalizing user experience. The last question, “how can I help you?” is how the community strategist begins to connect her understanding of a person’s or community’s needs or interests with her own resources and the resources—human, technological, informational, infrastructural—in her networks of connections. For example, San Diego’s Warsaw client is a software provider with many services and products, which she learned is typical of and successful in the Polish market. But because their goal was to expand into the U.S. market, which is more competitive, San Diego encouraged them to focus, at least at first, on data science. She then asked them to identify three industries their data science service could support, and, finally, she gathered information about that service that would help her localize the service for each particular industry in her presentations at various industry-specific meet-ups.
However, the answer to “how can I help you?” may not always involve making immediate provider-user connections. For example, San Diego connected online with a community in the Philippines that is using microcontrollers to improve conditions in their villages, where they face difficulty in obtaining basic electronics, even light bulbs, for their communities. San Diego’s primary goal is to learn more about what these communities are doing, then consider how access to technology (in this case to hardware) could improve quality of life, in the hopes that by connecting these communities with resources and suppliers in her own networks (which are primarily US-based), she could help the communities build better infrastructures and carry out their projects on a larger scale. But even if the communities’ goals are to build something that does not immediately require connecting with investors or suppliers in San Diego’s networks, she commits to respecting and helping with their goals.
Localizing communication involves both in-person and technology-mediated interaction
One of the most important services San Diego offers as part of her community strategy work is giving face-to-face product demos at local meet-ups in the target market. These face-to-face interactions are perhaps one of the most concrete ways in which she localizes communication between companies and communities. Since the Warsaw software company was interested in U.S. markets, San Diego offered them a choice of the four U.S. cities in which she has extensive networks: Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, and New York. San Diego emphasizes face-to-face engagement at meet-ups because it allows her to connect the product with communities of potential users in a way that aims to establish a mutually beneficial relationship between the community and the company from the outset. The meet-ups are identified because they represent industries and interests already aligned with those of the company, and San Diego offers to give a presentation that addresses the meet-up’s interests and connects the product demo to those interests, since many meet-ups are looking for speakers for their events.
The face-to-face interaction also helps San Diego rhetorically shape what she calls the first experience (rather than first impression) by connecting the product to the goals of the meet-up, by creating a positive environment for a first experience of the product, and by positioning herself as an empathetic advocate on behalf of potential users when they have concerns about the product’s usability. The first experience is an important part of the mutually beneficial relationship that the community strategist can build: When the interests and experiences of the community of potential users are centered, the community can benefit from the application of a product—in the case of the Warsaw company, data science—for a specific need or problem, and the provider company can benefit from ongoing user research facilitated by the community strategist acting as a user advocate. As user researchers well know (see especially Sun, 2012), particularly at the international scale, a feature that works in the local user community may not work or resonate in international contexts. A community strategist’s ongoing responsiveness to communities of potential new users can help companies save time and face in addressing issues before a full international launch.
But the community strategist’s work of localizing communication also includes media for online engagement. In addition to facilitating face-to-face demonstrations, San Diego also helps her clients revise their websites to be more rhetorically effective for specific communities. For example, San Diego helped her Polish client re-translate their English-language product site into more demographic-specific U.S. English. In other words, while the work of translating from Polish to English had already been done, which, as Gonzales and Zantjler (2015) demonstrate, is already a process of user localization, San Diego helped further localize that translation by attending to the particular lexis of a specific English-speaking U.S. demographic. Still, though, we note the limitations San Diego, who is not fluent in Polish, experienced in re-localizing the already-translated materials. San Diego knew enough about her clients’ communicative practices to sense how nuanced and context-specific meanings were, and she knew to keep asking questions to make sure she was getting at those nuances as she re-localized the translated text, but she wishes, in retrospect, she had done so even more. We note, furthermore, that our analysis led us to resolve, following Gonzales and Zantjler (2015) and Walton, Zraly, and Mugengana (2015), to seek out opportunities to include, and to highlight the work of translators in community strategy.
Rather than imposing a standard set of information and communication technologies (ICTs) for her work, San Diego adapts to the ICTs preferred or already in use by the clients and communities with whom she works. For a hardware provider, San Diego wrote a tutorial for using the provider’s microcontroller to serve as a solution for finding a misplaced mobile phone by having it play music, so that even if the phone’s ringer is off, the phone can still be heard and located. She published the tutorial on hackster.io, a popular international forum for people interested in hardware, which is an established medium for localizing hardware technologies. But she was also attuned to the opportunity to connect the provider’s goals of connecting with new users with her own goals of engaging more people in hardware: She designed and wrote the tutorial with first-time or novice users in mind and was pleased when novice users commented that they had successfully implemented the code and appreciated the usability of her instructions.
Localizing inclusion against challenges of access requires intentional mentorship
San Diego is a passionate advocate for inclusion in technology (both in industry and in community access), and her commitment to social justice permeates her work as a community strategist (and, therefore, the previous three dimensions we have described). Central to her advocacy practice is continually localizing inclusion itself—specifically, the definition of diversity and social justice outcomes. While there are certainly issues of diversity and social justice—for example, representation of women in technology industries, or access to hardware and software technologies in what Agboka (2013) calls unenfranchised communities—that transcend local circumstances, we emphasize that the approach to inclusion is localized. Furthermore, while organizations may have representation from people of diverse backgrounds, identities, and abilities, this does not mean that those people are made to feel welcome; inclusion is an active localization practice that includes whether or not diversity and difference is explicitly named and in what ways, as well as whether or not the advocacy comes from a community, the community strategist, a client, or some combination of these. Key to this work is exploring local contexts and balancing one’s own commitment to advocacy with the goals and commitments of the communities engaged, which, in turn, can lead to sustainable progress toward not simply describing but redressing inequities, as Jones and Walton (forthcoming) advocate.
San Diego recognized that one of the problems with diversity and access in technology industries is that the channels companies use to recruit employees, users, and communities are the “same old channels”—including, for example, predominantly white U.S. universities, or predominantly male meet-ups or special interest groups. A community strategist can intervene in this potential feedback loop by including more channels to more communities, especially those underrepresented in technology industries. San Diego leverages the diversity in her community relationships to make meaningful connections that include more voices, identities, experiences, and perspectives. Even when a company’s explicit goals do not involve increasing diversity in its user communities, San Diego connects her own, more diverse networks as part of her strategy work. The Polish data science provider, for example, was defining diversity in terms of international markets: specifically, in crossing cultural, geographic, and linguistic boundaries by reaching U.S. markets, both digitally and in person. San Diego, in turn, further expands (and simultaneously localizes) the work of inclusion through her own networks, which are diverse from both U.S. and Polish technology industry perspectives, and by being, herself, what she calls a “face of diversity.” In this way, a localized practice of diversity and inclusion advocacy can benefit both companies and communities.
Indeed, we emphasize the importance of a “show, don’t tell” approach to localizing and supporting inclusivity. As we discussed and reflected on San Diego’s work cofounding the makerspace and the fact that after she left, there were fewer women and people of color involved in the space, we realized that while the intention of the makerspace to be inclusive remains unchanged, what has changed is that San Diego herself was no longer prominently visible in the space to show diversity and inclusivity in practice. San Diego notes, furthermore, that she wishes she had taken pictures of women and people of color involved in the makerspace to include in the organization’s web and social media pages as a way of showing inclusivity beyond telling or proclaiming an intent to be inclusive. When San Diego is in a position to make increased inclusion an explicit goal—for example, in her work organizing conferences like the DevRel Summit in Seattle—she is careful about how (or if) she explicitly names the diversity she is working toward. Since her goal was to recruit balanced representation of men and women at the DevRel Summit, she chose not to explicitly name it a women-focused conference, because she has found that naming the conference that way leads to extremely low attendance by men. Instead, she made sure to advertise the event to channels that reached both women and men, and she recruited women and people of color to be speakers and leaders for the event.
As a result, women and men were nearly equally represented in the 500 conference attendees, and a male developer relations professional who attended the event wrote in his review: “While the tech industry tends to be overwhelmingly white and male, the selection of presenters wasn’t. When you factored in the panel compositions, there were more women on stage during the day than there were men, yet there was never a feeling that this was a conference about women or for women. It was simply a professional conference that just happened to have more women on stage. That was cool” (Bulmash, 2016, para. 3). In her work with Women Who Code, San Diego has found that the fact that the word “women” is in the name of the group has sometimes led to sponsorships and partnerships that have felt more tokenizing than meaningful. The potential for tokenization has prompted San Diego and her colleagues to begin articulating guidelines for meaningful relationships, which they plan to start by highlighting the inclusive practices of a partner organization they hold in high esteem. At the same time, as we were analyzing this experience, San Diego realized although she and her colleagues had successfully fostered diversity in gender and ethnicity, they had missed an opportunity to reach out to older audiences. In some ways, the conference was focusing its outreach on people who were already inclined to agree and have similar perspectives, while missing the experiences and different perspectives of diverse age groups. If the goal of a community strategist is to foster a self-sustaining community, then creating an ecosystem with diversity in demographics and experience is essential.
Just as fostering diversity in demographics and experience is important to the sustainability of a just community, mentoring is crucial both to localizing and to sustaining social justice work, specifically, and community strategy work in general. Some of this mentoring work is directly connected to the contracted work of a community strategist: To sustain the relationships and networks she materializes beyond her own direct involvement, San Diego mentors organization and community members to carry on the work of strategically assembling and connecting human, technological, and material resources across cultures. Mentoring is particularly important in groups who want to be more inclusive and diverse but are not sure how to go about making meaningful and sustainable changes. If, for example, the goal is to include more women, more people of color, or more people with disabilities, then San Diego emphasizes the importance of having women, people of color, and people with disabilities at the center of that strategy work and asking them how to reach out meaningfully and trust and support them. But at the same time, she also emphasizes the intersectional nature of diversity: It is never just gender, just race/ethnicity, just class, just ability, just geography but rather the intersections of all of these, which means that including and listening to many bodies, voices, and perspectives is crucial for finding resonances amid differences.
Other aspects of this mentoring work happen outside of official business: For example, San Diego is in a Slack group for underrepresented groups in technology industries founded by a friend in the Bay Area. The goal of the group is not only to support each other, through regular posting on channels like #todayimade, but also to mobilize the group to be public examples of diversity by, for example, connecting with others to attend local events together. Informal, ongoing mentoring and outreach, in turn, strengthens the ongoing community building and community connecting work that is at the heart of community strategy.
Limitations and Possibilities for Further Research and Practice
Just as Gonzales and Zantjler (2015) observe that localized translation practices are layered, multiple, and built over time, our analysis suggests the same is true of the user (or community) localization practices of a community strategist. As our results indicate, these four dimensions—localizing community, localizing goals, localizing communication, and localizing inclusion—are overlapping and intersecting dimensions, not only within the work of an international community strategist but also across the work of community strategy, global UX, and cross-cultural technical communication. These overlaps and intersections present both opportunities and challenges.
We emphasize that the methodological process by which we arrived at our findings is itself an opportunity for further investigation and collaboration across research and practice, as well as across cultures. The process of transforming the traditional qualitative interview-analysis-member check model into a collaboration that entwines data generation and analysis is itself a localization: It emphasizes the particularity of our shared understandings and experiences in the same way that localized UX emphasizes the particularity of language and culture in different communities’ experiences (Schumacher, 2010). Certainly this particularity is a limitation to our study: Our dataset is limited to the experiences of one practitioner, and the specific experiences of community strategy are not intended to be generalizable to all or even most community strategists (and global UX researchers and technical communicators). However, just as Sun (2012) reminds us that user localization “emphasizes the contributions users have made to a technology’s design process in participatory culture” (p. 41), we argue that our collaborative method is a way of accounting for a participatory approach to research. Just as Getto (2014) advocates for localizing methods, we suggest that our method itself, as well as the key dimensions we found, can be taken up and re-localized in other contexts. In this way, we envision the possibility of a dynamic, cumulative, global potential from these ongoing re-localizations of both method and findings.
Relatedly, we note that technical communicators, user experience researchers, and community strategists are well positioned to support each other in intervening in effective and culturally sensitive ways in iterative design and localization processes. To return to Sun’s (2012) distinction between user localization and developer localization, we note that the community strategist bridges users, communities, developers, and providers. This bridging work can occur at many points in the iterative design and localization process. Sometimes the community strategist is the bearer of bad news to developers and providers, when a user community does not respond to a feature in the ways developers had hoped, and sometimes the community strategist participates in the making of a community or in a community’s work toward a goal. Even the term user is highly relative in this work: Sometimes developers are users, sometimes communities are users, and sometimes communities are comprised of developers and users. We are reminded of Potts’ (2014) preference for the term participant over user to emphasize the importance of participation in systems; for a community strategist, both community and participant are vitally important and also dynamic.
However, such dynamic approaches can be accompanied by the challenge of justifying often non-quantitative and even non-quantifiable engagements that require different metrics from traditional revenue-based measure. The metric of success in community strategy is not always quantifiable in growth. The primary goal of community strategy is to identify personalities and groups that work well together, both in and across communities, which can lead to growth. But not all communities need to grow, or grow as much as others, to fulfill their purpose. Community strategy goes beyond a more directly revenue-oriented objective to emphasize relationships, which can, in turn, benefit both communities of users and providers, but this is not always recognizable to clients and companies as measurable success. San Diego, Persing, and Fifield (2016) offer recommendations to community strategists for articulating value added to companies that resonate with the recommendations of Redish (2010), Redish and Barnum (2011), and Lauer and Brumberger (2016) to technical communicators for articulating their value to UX work. Notably, both sets of recommendations involve constantly localizing value—in the same way that community strategists, like technical communicators and UX researchers, are constantly localizing goals. This means listening to stakeholders, having a range of strategies and approaches that can be flexibly reshaped or even abandoned, and making rhetorically responsive cases for the importance of community strategy to the iterative design and localization process.
User localization, audience analysis, and cross-cultural communication are important practices in our field. Community strategy work supports and extends these practices by emphasizing relationship building and a deep understanding and support of communities. The main argument of this article is twofold: first, that the multifaceted localization practices of community strategists intersect with and are integral to user experience and user localization processes, and second, that collaboration—between researchers and practitioners, and among community strategists, technical communicators, and user experience researchers—is itself a localization practice that can support design, engagement, knowledge-making, and social justice work.
Collaboration among community strategists, technical communicators, and user experience researchers—or implementing their combined practices—can lead to more effective communication, more responsive technology design, and more meaningful engagement of communities. Researchers and practitioners committed to social justice and inclusion advocacy can benefit from the practices of and collaborations with international community strategists. Crucially, definitions of diversity and community in our research and practice should be products of meaningful, localized engagement, not assumptions we start with. Inclusivity is more than simply having people of diverse backgrounds, identities, and abilities in an organization or community; it is actively making people welcome. We call for further research into the dimensions of localization we describe, and particularly localizing inclusion as an essential practice for cross-cultural, global design and engagement.
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About the Authors
Ann Shivers-McNair is assistant professor and director of professional and technical writing at the University of Arizona, where she specializes in digital rhetorics, professional and technical communication, and writing pedagogies. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, College Composition and Communication, Basic Writing e-Journal, Across the Disciplines, and FORUM: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Labor, as well as two edited collections from Utah State University Press. Formerly, she was a predoctoral instructor and assistant director of computer-integrated courses in the English department at the University of Washington in Seattle. She is available at email@example.com.
Clarissa San Diego is a developer community strategist primarily based out of the San Francisco Bay Area in California and Seattle in Washington. She specializes in growth hacking and community management within the new tech industry. Her main objective is to bridge the gap between developers and companies through creative community engagement. She is co-founder of SoDo MakerSpace and Makerologist and an evangelist for Women Who Code. She has organized numerous tech events and conferences with a focus on bringing inclusion into the IoT and maker communities. She is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Manuscript received 15 August 2016, revised 1 February 2017; accepted 14 February 2017.