66.1, February 2019

Problems and Solutions in Conducting Research

Sam Dragga, Editor

Research in technical communication typically focuses on problems and solutions: That is, the researcher notices a problem in the field (e.g., ineffective or inefficient instructions) and looks for a solution (e.g., examining variations in the design of pages or screens). In reporting on a study, the researcher emphasizes the problem identified and the solution considered, including the history of the problem and related investigations of it as well as how the solution was examined and what was discovered about it. Problems and solutions, however, also characterize the conduct of the research itself, but their influence on the researchers and the research project is usually minimized or ignored altogether.

This issue of STC’s research journal offers five disparate research projects, but I also invited the authors to address two questions about their studies:

  1. What problems did you encounter in the research and writing of your article? (Problems might be related to funding, access to sources, ethical issues, logistics of implementing your methods, deciphering theoretical or practical implications, life crises, etc.)
  2. What did you do to solve, mitigate, or circumvent these problems?

In “Beyond Accuracy: What Documentation Quality Means to Readers,” Yoel Strimling addresses the problem of creating usable and useful documentation, and looks for a solution in a reader-centered definition of information quality. He reports on a survey he distributed worldwide to readers of documentation that invited respondents to rate 15 dimensions of information quality. The results from 80 completed questionnaires offer empirical support for the claim that users desire documentation that is, above all, accurate, relevant, easy to understand, and accessible. This definition of information quality, according to Yoel, gives writers of documentation the insight necessary to solicit genuinely informative and practical comments from the readers of documentation.

Yoel’s challenges in putting together this research project were several. As he explains,

The first issue I had to deal with was one of logistics. I’m a full-time-employed technical editor, with deadlines to meet and projects to complete. Research into how to get meaningful and actionable feedback about what my readers want from the documentation I send them is a critical component of my role as a reader advocate, but it is not high in my official job description, and I cannot always invest the time needed to properly focus on it. This means that sometimes months can go by without my working on my research. It can take a long time for me to collect data, analyze it, and write about it, but the research is always in the back of my mind, and I’m always trying to think of ways to implement and apply what I’m finding to my “real job”—which is to write things that readers will use.

The second issue is one that will probably be familiar to many graduate students working on their theses and dissertations: There’s always another journal article or book to read. One article leads to another and to another and to another. It’s easy to fall down this never-ending rabbit hole of previous literature. But if you keep reading articles, you will never get yours written. At some point, you must draw a red line and tell yourself “OK, I’ve read enough of other people’s research; now it’s time for them to read mine!”

Lastly, but most importantly, is the issue of getting access to the correct audience to be studied. It’s not always easy (and sometimes it’s impossible) for technical communicators to have direct contact with their end-user readers. Sometimes, it’s a lack of time, resources, or interest, and, sometimes, it’s because of a stated policy of not asking customers about documentation quality. This was one of the biggest obstacles I had to overcome in my research. I had to find enough technical communicators (or more often, customer support groups) who were willing and able to send my questionnaire to their readers. For a robust and applicable result, it was very important to get as large a sample size of respondents as possible and from a wide enough range of industries. With a tenacious effort, a clearly explained rationale and goal, and a number of helpful technical communicators and customer support groups, I was able to get in contact with enough end-user readers to create a definition of documentation quality from the readers’ point of view. However, this model is still preliminary, and I am continuing my efforts to improve its robustness and applicability—and the challenge of getting to the correct audience is still problematic.

In “Lost in Content Management: Constructing Quality as a Global Technical Communication Metric,” Tatiana Batova investigates the problem of creating high-quality multilingual texts in CCM (Component Content Management) environments. Tatiana searches for the solution to this problem in the results of two surveys—one for technical communicators and one for technical translators. In analyzing the results of the surveys, Tatiana focused on 98 technical communicators experienced with translation/localization and 58 technical translators experienced with microtranslation (i.e., translation of components of content). In their answers to the surveys, the two fields voice differences (e.g., technical communicators believe CCM has a positive impact on multilingual quality, while technical translators think the impact is negative) but also share similarities (e.g., espousing cultural adaptation of information products), which makes the collaboration of the two fields as potentially productive as it is imperative to achieving appropriate metrics (focused on users, business goals, and available resources) for multilingual quality in a CCM world.

In managing this research project, Tatiana discovered how the solution to one problem created a new and bigger problem to solve:

When I started this project, my goal was to design the survey in a way that combines academic and industry perspectives and to keep the survey relatively consistent for technical communication and translation/localization participants. To achieve this goal, I worked with the Center for Information Development-Management’s Research Advisory Board, which consisted of both industry managers and scholars. My initial research was sponsored by this organization’s grant. I also enrolled the help of several translation and localization scholars and project managers I knew from my own localization days. While this approach definitely helped me to get a comprehensive range of questions in my survey, it also created new challenges. I received ample, insightful feedback but often different (and sometimes mutually exclusive) angles were emphasized, creating what I called “a good problem to have.” I was acutely aware of the need to reconcile the perspectives or I ran the risk of never finishing the survey design and of making the survey too long (in return causing participant fatigue and a low completion rate for started surveys). So I had to find a delicate balance between the breadth and depth of the survey, often thinking of the angles as patterns repeated in the majority of comments and recognizing the mutual exclusivity as a pattern of contradiction.

Tatiana also discovered that research efforts are always subject to the higher priorities of family responsibilities. She explains,

My project was interrupted by a major life crisis—becoming a sole caretaker for my husband, who had to undergo multiple brain surgeries over a period of several months. While such a time of turmoil was definitely not suited for conducting a research project, the first survey was already completed and I was able to get the second survey designed and online. Focusing on my family, I kept this second survey open for longer than I originally planned—which, in the end, had the added benefit of getting more responses. And once the storm clouds cleared, I was happy to get back to the more “normal” activities of analyzing survey results—bit by bit. In the end, the survey method of data collection gave me the flexibility necessary to complete the project.

In “Workplace Democracy and The Problem of Equality,” Jared S. Colton, Avery C. Edenfield, and Steve Holmes examine the problem of writing regulations for on-the-job behavior in horizontal or non-hierarchical organizations and propose a potential solution: that is, cultivate the practice of equality as a disposition or ongoing habit across the organization in addition to institutionalizing it as a resource of written policy. The investigation of this problem and solution includes a review of research on democratically organized businesses, a consideration of the feasibility of exercising mêtis (or cunning intelligence) to navigate and mediate inequalities, and a discussion of the challenges to equality experienced in two cooperatives in spite of their admirable intentions and detailed policies.

In this research project, the three co-authors experienced different problems but discovered shared solutions through their collaboration. For example, Jared perceived a problem in the abstract nature of ethical discussions:

The practice of technical communication is always informed by ethical and other theoretical frameworks even if we don’t articulate those frameworks to ourselves or others on a regular basis. The problem is that discussions of ethics can often feel too abstract to be relevant, or they can be challenging to apply to certain tech comm scenarios.

The way we addressed this problem was by really listening to our reviewers’ feedback. Sometimes a researcher/writer can hear criticism and be upset and even disagree with that criticism, but just as we would hope for reviewers who are generous readers, we tried really hard to be generous readers of our reviewers’ responses and to take each response as advice intended to strengthen our argument. I think this approach resulted in a much stronger article that could appeal to a broad audience of TC practitioners as well as teachers and researchers.

Avery perceived the major problem of the research project was the relative unfamiliarity of the topic, and the key solution was in finding how to explain its importance to technical communicators.

For me the biggest challenge was writing about a topic that hasn’t been investigated much (cooperatives and democratic organizations). And a lot of the research was from other fields or really old. We were drawing on some research that was published in 1979 and the books were out of print: in part, this article is a recovery or revisiting of a topic that hasn’t been talked about in a while.

In writing this article, it was really important to be clear that such organizations are relevant to us now and are ubiquitous. We wanted to convey the importance of paying attention to non-hierarchical organizations and to show readers that these organizations can offer a real opportunity to enact justice and equality. Horizontal or other “unconventional” work arrangements are growing, and we (as researchers, practitioners, and educators) need to know how to work with and in these arrangements.

Steve shared Jared’s and Avery’s recognition that the abstract nature of the research project was a problem to be solved with a clear emphasis on practical applications:

On the theoretical front, we encountered logistical problems in the sense that TC as a field can be a challenging audience for more theoretical conversations. The interest is certainly there with the field’s turn toward social justice and intercultural communication as a case in point. However, we have encountered plenty of reviewers in the past who, regarding the use of theoretical figures like Ranciere, respond with something akin to “How is this relevant to practitioners?” It was really an advantage to have several collaborators for a project of this nature. It was easier for the three of us collectively to imagine reader responses and to adjust the theoretical material accordingly.

A different problem and solution for the project emerged from Steve’s family responsibilities:

On a personal front, I was undergoing a series of life crises during the entire life cycle of the article. I was a caregiver for an individual with extreme behavioral health issues who required around-the-clock monitoring at several points. I really leaned on my collaborators here. They were kind enough to take on some of the heavier writing tasks during some moments in which I was less than available while leaving me with lighter loads. I can’t say enough about the value of finding generous research collaborators to work with across multiple projects. We’re all likely to encounter moments in our professional lives where our personal lives impact our professional lives, and so having empathetic collaborators is truly a wonderful situation to have.

“Genre Chameleon: Email, Professional Writing Curriculum, and Workplace Writing Expectations ” by Patricia Welsh Droz and Lorie Stagg Jacobs considers the problem of designing college-level writing courses that adequately prepare students for writing on the job. Patricia and Lorie derived insights for a solution to this problem by questioning 32 industry-insiders (6 by interview and 26 by survey) about the kinds of writing required on the job and the impact of communication skills on hiring, retention, and promotion. The respondents included chief executive officers, business partners/owners, supervisors, directors, human resource managers, recruiters, and independent consultants, and their opinion was unanimous regarding e-mail as almost always a daily writing obligation. The findings of this research project indicate that effective preparation of writing students must emphasize intensive study of email messages—a genre as altogether variable (in purpose, style, and format) as it is ubiquitous on the job.

Patricia and Lorie tackled interpersonal and administrative problems in this research effort and derived gratifying solutions from their collegiality:

We began as a three-person research team and struggled with the division of labor and the scope and size of the project. Our third researcher wanted the project to be for local marketing data only, but we wanted to turn our pilot study for marketing data (basic interviews with half a dozen local professionals) into a more substantial second-stage quantitative study, which is what we have presented in “Genre Chameleon.” Our differing visions for the research did lead to minor interpersonal conflict with our beloved colleague, an increased time-investment for us in the project, and a reconceptualization of the research design. And the new research design required the participation of additional stakeholders because we had a complete lack of funding.

Originally, we only wanted to get local professionals to affirm the value of writing at work so we could convince our disbelieving STEM students that writing is a lifelong work skill; the project got bigger once we had the responses from our initial interview participants. Realizing we had some interesting findings, we expanded the project and asked our college’s Career Services Department to help us disseminate the survey via their contact list of potential employers for graduates. This was difficult because we had to relinquish control of the survey dissemination and hope that it was as much of a priority for Career Services as it was for us. Thankfully, this partnership did pay off in the end and is one we have been able to revisit for other projects. And our third colleague remains instrumental for the marketing of our professional writing minor, was an early reader of the “Genre Chameleon” manuscript, and continues to be a champion of all the Droz and Jacobs research projects.

In “Hypertext Theory: Theoretical Foundations for Technical Communication in the 21st Century,” Craig Baehr and Susan Lang examine the problem of hypertext’s relationship to the field of technical communication and find their solution through a review of research. Starting with Vannevar Bush’s “associative trails” in 1945, Douglas Engelbart’s “card system” in 1962, and Ted Nelson’s coinage of “hypertext” and “hypermedia” in 1965, Craig and Susan trace the growing influence of evolving hypertext theory on the core competencies and the products and practices of technical communication. Their finding is that virtually everything we think and do as technical communicators, from collaborative authoring and information design to content management and social media, is a consequence of hypertext theory. And this key insight about the foundations of the field offers a uniform identity for this highly variable profession.

All the problems that Craig and Susan might have anticipated in compiling their research were quickly addressed with ready solutions from years of experience in the field as well as working with each other on previous projects:

We both taught in Texas Tech University ’s online program for years and have collaborated on several publishing and teaching projects since 2003 while rarely in the same city for more than a week or two at a time: W orking from a distance is thus our normal mode of operation. We frequently call and email work back and forth as we draft and revise. We had also been talking about this project for a year or so before we started writing in May 2017. We worked for several days on it while together in Lubbock, and that gave us enough core material that it was easy to divide up the work and move forward efficiently. We drafted the initial manuscript in a little less than five months.

And we didn’t have trouble with the choices of items for the literature review. We have been part of this field for nearly 25 years now, and both of us were already familiar with a range of scholarship in the field. Some of our knowledge naturally overlaps, but we also could leverage our different backgrounds to ensure coverage.

Given the extended history of hypertext, we sought to present that history in a condensed but coherent way; however, an additional task was to integrate the discussion of theory in terms accessible to both practitioners and academics who may not be as familiar with the subject. To accomplish these things, we integrated examples and extended definitions of key hypertext theory terms and articulated connections with central concepts in technical communication. Additionally, the feedback from reviewers helped in refining our selections from the historical material on hypertext.

From the comments of the authors of these five articles, I derive the following hypotheses about managing research projects in technical communication (i.e., five is likely insufficient for reliable conclusions):

  1. Research projects require solving multiple problems, simultaneously and consecutively.
  2. Major problems include
    • Reserving time for research
    • Determining the scope of the literature review
    • Discovering and accessing the right information sources
    • Explaining the practical applications of theoretical studies
    • Explaining the theoretical implications of industry practices
    • Taking care of life crises
  3. The solution to a problem could lead to a subsequent problem (and, ideally, a subsequent solution).
  4. Experience in the field makes it easier to anticipate problems and prepare solutions.
  5. Collegiality is necessary.
  6. Finding appropriate and considerate partners and collaborators is important.
  7. We are human beings who do research instead of researchers who are human beings.

Obviously, each of my hypotheses could itself be the subject of a research project.

I believe you will appreciate the five articles in this issue for their insight on this always curious field. And I hope you will admire as thoroughly as I do the unyielding intellectual and emotional effort involved in their creation.