66.4, November 2019

Research and Realities

By Sam Dragga, Editor

You are likely familiar with the allegation that scholars live in ivory towers examining esoteric topics with little or no appreciation for the practical realities of daily life. I consider this claim as spurious as it is insulting because my impression from 40 years of toiling in universities as a teacher, researcher, and administrator is that a scholar’s projects are almost always initiated by a lived experience (on the job, in the classroom, with family or friends, in the community). This lived experience makes a topic salient for the scholar, bringing the topic to the scholar’s attention, inspiring curiosity about that topic, driving the effort to study that topic, and encouraging a systematic investigation to determine how typical or atypical is the scholar’s individual experience.

I think of research as neither divorced from nor married to the realities of life but altogether engaged: That is, research arises from interactions with reality and develops—cautiously but optimistically—with the objective of knowing, appreciating, influencing, or changing this reality. This basis in reality, I think, is especially characteristic of research in technical communication, as the authors of the five articles in this issue make clear.

In “An Analysis of Physical and Rhetorical Characteristics of Videos Used to Promote Technology Projects on the Kickstarter Crowdfunding Platform,” Aileen Cudmore and Darina Slattery examine 50 videos soliciting funding for technology projects (25 funded and 25 failed campaigns). Their analysis of the physical characteristics of the videos as well as the uses of rhetoric in the videos serves to identify key indicators of success or failure. For example, funded videos typically included frequent rhetorical appeals (to ethos and pathos, in particular), inserted still pictures, demonstrated a final version of the technology in question, linked images on screen to the audio narration, and put the inventor/entrepreneur on screen. No single video, however, included all the characteristics associated with funded projects. Aileen and Darina’s study has important implications for technical communicators who design videos (and related information materials) for campaigns that solicit support for new ideas.

Their project has its basis in Aileen’s experience with Kickstarter campaigns. As she explains,

During a brainstorming session for the research project for my master’s degree, I realized that I was interested in doing research on some aspect of videos, which I believed were becoming increasingly important as a communication tool. I already had an interest in crowdfunding campaigns and had previously supported a couple of Kickstarter projects. At the same time, two friends of mine were actually thinking of launching a Kickstarter campaign of their own. Both were experienced researchers, were capable of writing successful proposals, and had even been published in journals. However, neither had any experience with creating a campaign video, and were quite daunted by this task and how to go about it.

Then, when doing a little research into crowdfunding campaigns, I realized that the project descriptions were crucial in attracting funding from investors. However, most studies to that point had just looked at the written text on the project page, and very little had been done on the campaign videos themselves. So I thought that these could be an interesting thing to look at!

In the end, my friends did go ahead with their Kickstarter campaign, and I was able to give them some advice on making their video. And, fortunately, their campaign was a success!

Darina was Aileen’s thesis advisor and quite accomplished in writing for publication. She readily acknowledges, however, “I didn’t have any experience with Kickstarter campaigns before Aileen proposed the topic. The project was entirely her idea, and there was a learning curve for me in working on it.”

As Aileen and Darina demonstrate, collaborators inspire each other with their lived experiences: Darina’s experience with research and publication joined Aileen’s experience with Kickstarter campaigns to generate their article in this issue of the journal.

Emil Towner’s “Expository Warnings in Public Recreation and Tourism Spaces” reports on the results of a survey completed online by 303 participants regarding how the language of warning signs influences the recognition of risk and resulting behaviors to avoid risk. Emil’s survey displayed a warning sign with either a brief or detailed message of risk and solicited the viewer’s explanation of the sign’s meaning. The findings of this study indicate that brief signs (e.g., No Diving) offer inadequate warning about identified dangers and insufficient instruction about effective safety measures. While urgency of the warning message and time for reading are important factors that encourage brevity, technical communicators must also consider the better insight (and potentially greater compliance and extrapolation to related conditions) that a detailed warning sign would generate.

Emil explains the practical origins of this article:

About 15 years ago, my family took a vacation to Yellowstone National Park, where we encountered a bison grazing in a field next to the parking lot of the Old Faithful Inn. A warning sign advised DANGER: DO NOT APPROACH WILDLIFE. We don’t consider ourselves risk-takers, so we did not approach the bison. Instead, we stood behind a wood railing that separated the field from the parking lot and we took a few pictures.

Later, we learned that numerous visitors to Yellowstone are injured by bison while doing the same thing we did. That is, the wood railing does not always deter bison and does not assure a zone of safety for visitors. Of course, we were horrified that we possibly endangered our family, but we also knew that we were following the posted sign (at least, we followed it based on our understanding of it). This experience prompted my interest in not only the safety/risk communication language but also the visuals used to warn people who visit dangerous public spaces.

Over the years, the National Park Service has added additional warning signs but has still kept the vague signs (so different warning messages are located in different areas). After a high number of visitors were injured a few summers ago, I decided I wanted to research the warning signs to understand how visitors perceive and process the messages. That research resulted in this manuscript.

In “Sounding Off: Toward a Rhetoric of Sound in Technical Communication,” David Wright traces the uses of sound in technical communication through history and examines sound as linguistic, paralingustic, and extralinguistic communication. David proceeds from this foundation to build a theory of sound for technical communicators that includes a series of factors to consider, from the source (i.e., human or non-human) to the type of sound (e.g., dialogue, song, sneeze, quiet pause, piano music) and the type of rhetoric (i.e., deliberative, forensic, or epideictic). He proposes that the communicative effect of sound is a result of the linguistic, auditory, and rhetorical elements interacting with the audience. David’s heuristic for systematic analysis allows technical communicators to develop judicious multimedia materials with greater efficiency and consistency.

David explains the experience that initiated this research project:

Prior to life as a faculty member, I worked as a musician for years. During many performances, I noticed sound’s ability to convey not only emotion but meaning. Musicians who play together for extended periods often use their instruments to convey thoughts to one another. Although this is usually done in a joking manner, it really does become a second language after a time. So, I’ve always been interested in how sound conveys meaning. When I began to notice that sounds were truly breaking into mainstream technology as a substitute for text and speech, it seemed like a very natural topic to investigate further.

There is a long history of sound being used to communicate, but most of that history has centered on coordinating the efforts of large groups of people. Now, I believe, sound is becoming a primary communication device for personal items and digital machinery of all types. I was discussing this idea with a colleague, and our conversation turned to Britton’s bugle call analogy. While it’s true that technical writing has been “like a bugle call” in many respects, it has also been much more. Now that it is literally becoming a bugle call (at least in terms of sound conveying meaning through digital devices) it seems that the role of sound will only continue to expand in technical communication. I, for one, am interested to see what that future will hold.

In “Communication Strategies for Diagnosing Technical Problems at a Help Desk,” Vincent Robles closely analyzes the interactions of 11 users with 6 technical support providers to identify the characteristics of their dialogue that contributed to user satisfaction. He finds that more description and narration from the user is associated with greater user satisfaction, and he thus encourages technical support providers to solicit information from users through open-ended questions, which are more likely to generate more extensive conversation. Questions that focus on the user’s needs, experiences, previous actions, and circumstances related to the technical problem prove especially productive. Technical support providers could also easily adapt the methods of data collection and text analysis employed in this small-scale study to determine the effectiveness of their interactions with their specific users.

Vince explains how he arrived at this project, linking his experience with help desks to his earlier experience with writing centers:

I started interacting with the help desk I studied—as an observer and as a recipient of their help—a few years before working on this research project. I don’t remember the exact problem I asked for help with, but it related to some aspect of my course website, especially the grading features. I do recall that much of my experience was of waiting while the tech support rep attempted to re-enact what I had tried to do. I also answered many questions about my previous attempts at solving the issue and what my problem experience was like.

I was taking an organizational communication course at the time, and this help desk was one of the most readily available sites of technical communication work, so I began interviewing the members (some of whom I knew) about their experiences.

The parallels to writing center tutorials immediately leaped to mind since I had worked in such tutorials before. And I wondered: Do language scripts help these technical-support persons communicate with users? What communication skills do these workers draw from?

I found the lack of communication research on these technical problem-solving conversations surprising, though the important role of communication was obvious to me. So, I determined to examine the conversations more closely, and this article represents the fruit of this research.

Michael Meng’s “Effects of Visual Signaling in Screenshots: An Eye Tracking Study” reports the results of a usability experiment involving 32 human subjects. The experiment has two purposes: 1) to determine whether visual signals in screenshots for software tutorials effectively direct the user’s attention to pertinent information in the screenshots and 2) to determine whether the visual signals in the screenshots influence the speed and accuracy with which the user executes designated tasks of the software tutorial. The findings indicate that visual signals did encourage users to focus their attention on specific sections of the screen shots (for longer and more frequent periods) and did lead to higher accuracy (but no greater speed) in their completion of the tutorial. Michael’s study has important implications for the design and annotation of screenshots in online tutorials, help systems, and related resources.

This empirical research project has its basis in Michael’s earlier job experience:

Before joining university, I worked as a technical writer in a software company in Germany for more than a decade. When the company planned to release a new product line several years ago, our team was asked to design and implement a browser-based online help from scratch. This task provided us a rare opportunity to evaluate and challenge everything we had done so far, including questions regarding the content to present, information structure and design, presentation format, tools, and processes. As part of the evaluation, we also discussed how to deal with screenshots, such as whether we should use screenshots at all, when to use screenshots, and how to design them. We quickly came up with several arguments against using screenshots that were mostly related to the additional effort and cost screenshots add to initial development as well as maintenance and localization. We found it much more difficult to generate equally convincing arguments in favor of using screenshots, so we finally decided to do without screenshots in the first release.

A while later, I came across the work of Hans van der Meij and his colleagues on screenshot usage, including the articles published in this journal. I immediately felt that work like this would have helped me and my team make more balanced decisions because this research demonstrates that screenshots can support the user. Knowing that screenshots can have this impact, in turn, can help to form arguments that possibly justify the additional costs incurred by screenshots. I thus recognized how research can help technical writers make more informed decisions and, in particular, decisions that fully appreciate the user perspective aside from all the cost and effort considerations.

I took this experience related to screenshots and combined it with my interest in eye tracking from my background in psycholinguistics, where eye tracking has been used to study cognitive processes related to language production and comprehension. While eye tracking has been used successfully in some areas of technical communication, such as usability evaluation, I realized that eye tracking studies might also help us better understand how users actually deal with information technical writers provide to them—not only which information users attend to and select but which specific activities they undertake in response to that information. I would be more than happy if my contribution in this issue triggered greater interest in using eye tracking as a research method in technical communication.

In each of the five articles in this issue, lived experience is the foundation for research. The scholars derive insights from their experience, discover and analyze related experiences, think through the implications of their findings, and generate perceptive insights to inform and guide your experience.

Among the multiple possibilities for failure in this fragile process is the clear communication of pertinent new insights—that is, in scholars effectively sharing with you the practical meaning of research that arises from the practical realities of their lives, of making their lived experience of a topic—interpreted and intensified through research—important to your lived experience of that topic.

Manuscript reviewers are essential to mitigate this potential failure in communication. In addition to judging the rigor and propriety of a manuscript’s research methods, and the validity and reliability (or plausibility and consistency) of results, reviewers assess the applicability of a manuscript’s conclusions and recommendations to the practice and teaching of technical communication. A key issue in their analysis of a manuscript is the ability to adopt or adapt its findings to the experience of technical communicators on the job or in the classroom. And this decision of the reviewers is obviously subject to the influence of their lived experience.

In this review effort, Technical Communication enjoys the privilege of involving scores of specialists from industry and academic institutions. Theirs is a vital contribution to the research of the field as well as to the credibility and readability of this journal:

  • Kaye Adkins
  • Ramesh Aiyyangar
  • Gillian Andersen
  • Bernard Aschwanden
  • Ken Baake
  • Craig Baehr
  • Thomas Barker
  • Ann Blakeslee
  • Nicky Bleiel
  • Carolyn Boiarsky
  • Pam Brewer
  • Kit Brown-Hoekstra
  • Eva Brumberger
  • Tom Burns
  • Lauren Cagle
  • Joyce Locke Carter
  • Jared Colton
  • Kelli Cargile Cook
  • Michelle Corbin
  • Nancy Coppola
  • Matthew Cox
  • David Dick
  • Viqui Dill
  • Nicole Dilts
  • Daniel Ding
  • Paul Dombrowski
  • Lucia Dura
  • Carlos Evia
  • Dave Farkas
  • Michael Faris
  • Carly Finseth
  • Alyssa Fox
  • Elizabeth Fraley
  • Ray Gallon
  • Lyn Gattis
  • Guiseppe Getto
  • Gwendolyn Gong
  • Laura Gonzales
  • Steven Grindlay
  • Drew Grohowoski
  • Baotong Gu
  • Geoffrey Hart
  • Hillary Hart
  • Sally Henschel
  • Ty Herrington
  • Jillian Hill
  • Russell Hirst
  • Steve Holmes
  • Tharon Howard
  • Keith Instone
  • Lee-Ann Kastman-Breuch
  • Miles Kimball
  • Abigail King
  • Carie King
  • Tina Kister
  • Karla Kitalong
  • Mark Kleinsmith
  • Amy Koerber
  • Tim Krause
  • Thomas Krueger
  • Larry Kunz
  • Amber Lancaster
  • Claire Lauer
  • Arnie Lund
  • Ed Malone
  • Lynn Makela
  • Andrew Mara
  • Rudy McDaniel
  • Keisha McKenzie
  • Joy McMurrin
  • Lisa Melonçon
  • Ryan Moeller
  • Scott Mogull
  • Crista Mohammed
  • Kristen Moore
  • Avon Murphy
  • Maria Novotny
  • Linda Oestreich
  • Brett Oppegard
  • Laura Palmer
  • Cindy Pao
  • Neil Perlin
  • Stacy Pigg
  • Andrea Pilati
  • Rebecca Pope-Ruark
  • Liza Potts
  • Ritu Raju
  • Ginny Redish
  • Rich Rice
  • Margaret Roidi
  • Emma Rose
  • Derek Ross
  • David Sapp
  • Geoffrey Sauer
  • Jerry Savage
  • Stephanie Saylor
  • Joanna Schreiber
  • Karen Schriver
  • Rachel Spilka
  • Clay Spinuzzi
  • Kirk St.Amant
  • Rhonda Stanton
  • Brian Still
  • Huatong Sun
  • Jason Swarts
  • Jason Tham
  • Emil Towner
  • Dan Voss
  • Rebecca Walton
  • Josephine Walwema
  • Tom Warren
  • Lisa Welchman
  • Ann Wiley
  • Russell Willerton
  • Miriam Williams
  • Ben Woelk
  • David Wright
  • Dave Yeats
  • Susan Youngblood
  • Donald Zimmerman
  • Greg Zobel