By Miriam F. Williams, Editor
In this issue of Technical Communication, a common theme running throughout the authors’ excellent research is the need to balance strategy and flexibility in our work. Over the past two years, organizations around the world have had to find new ways to be both strategic and flexible in providing goods and services to clients and customers. To introduce this issue, I had the pleasure of speaking with the President of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) Board of Directors, Kirsty Taylor, about STC, its future, and the ways that technical communicators have balanced strategy and flexibility over the past two years.
Miriam Williams: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Please tell us a bit about your background in technical communication. What attracted you to the field of technical communication and to STC?
Kirsty Taylor: When I first went to university, I started a bachelor of information technology degree. It took me a while to figure out that I really didn’t want to write software code for the rest of my life, but that I enjoyed communicating about technology. After changing degrees, I somehow learned about technical communication, and spent a week working with a local small company writing their first user doc. I’d found my niche, combining working in and with technology, but focussing on figuring out and explaining the technology to the users of the technology.
I joined STC after being a technical writer for a year or two. I was attracted by the opportunity to (remotely) meet fellow tech comm professionals, to have access to the STC publications, and perhaps one day travel all the way to the US for the annual Summit. I continue to be involved in STC because in this organization, I can find people with new insights into our industry, as well as years of experience—I can find the technical communication managers who’ve been running tech comm departments, the authors of so many of my favourite industry books, and so many people I can learn from. I haven’t found other associations with a mixture of individual practitioners, doc department managers, as well as people with expertise in UX, knowledge management, localization, APIs, technical illustration, business analysis, and more. I continue to be astounded by how we all apply our technical communication skills across various industries, contexts, and develop additional specialties that enhance our core skills.
Williams: As the President of STC’s Board of Directors, what is your vision for the organization and the field of technical communication?
Taylor: For STC, I hope that the challenges of recent years help us to evolve into an organization for the future. Community is at the core of our association, and I want us to continue to create opportunities for both physical and virtual communities in a way that’s manageable for dedicated volunteers and provides value for current and future members who attend.
For the industry, our core communication and explanation skills will always be needed. Whether we’re writing a variety of content deliverables using DITA, personalized content for specific user personas, localizing our content into 10 languages, or focusing on embedding instructional videos—or in 20 years’ time creating content types in ways that I can’t imagine–we’ll still need to be communicators and explainers.
Williams: What advice would you give Technical Communication readers in academia who are interested in collaborating on research projects with technical communicators in industry?
Taylor: Join STC—and find industry connections through the various STC networks—chapters, SIGs, the membership database, our Slack community. Through these networks, as well as STC publications and education offerings, you can find connections with many industry practitioners around the world.
Williams: Over the past two years, in what ways have you seen technical communicators respond to recent challenges using strategy and flexibility?
Taylor: The first way I’ve seen technical communicators respond to challenges in the past two years is embracing remote work. So many of my international colleagues are still primarily working from home, or only just venturing into a hybrid working model with some work from home and some office time. Remote work is a wonderful way that technical communicators can use and share many skills with their coworkers—communication, organization, and flexibility. The second way has been embracing virtual connections with our technical communication colleagues—whether through attending virtual conferences, such as the Summit in the past two years, or moving STC community meetups to an online model, allowing more people to attend without the hassle of commuting and traffic.
Williams: Thank you, Kirsty, for your time and all that you do for STC.
In This Issue
I also had the pleasure of asking the authors featured in this issue what advice they might offer the Technical Communication audience about the importance of balancing strategy and flexibility when considering the methods or recommendations in their articles.
The first article in this issue is “Promoting Social Justice through Usability in Technical Communication: An Integrative Literature Review,” by Keshab Raj Acharya. The article, “provides an integrative literature review on usability, its goals, and approaches to accomplish those goals in relation to Technical Communication’s commitment to social justice and empowerment.” Regarding strategy and flexibility, Keshab Raj Acharya wrote:
Given technical communications’ recent cultural and social justice turns, the article draws the attention of technical communication practitioners to effective usability implementation for promoting social justice and user empowerment. As technical communication goes global and businesses engage in some form of international interaction, practitioners also need to think about how they can develop localized products and what strategies they can adopt to empower underserved users in a global context. As I mention in my article, many design methods developed in the West for improving usability may not always work well in non-Western cultures, so employing flexible design approaches for handling uncertainties during the design process is often essential to meeting the needs of culturally diverse users, including underprivileged, underserved, or marginalized user groups.
The second article in this issue is “Context, Cognition, and the Dynamics of Design Thinking: Cognitive Methods for Understanding the Situational Variables Affecting Usable Design” by Kirk St.Amant. The article “examines how the cognitive science concepts of scripts and prototypes can help realize the potential of design thinking in different settings.” In response to my question, Kirk St.Amant wrote:
The balance between strategy and flexibility is a matter of audience. It involves answering the question: What does your audience expect in relation to the content or product you are creating? The entry “Context, Cognition, and the Dynamics of Design Thinking” presents a modified design thinking approach that can help technical communicators better understand such audience dynamics when addressing issues of strategy and flexibility. Specifically, the article explains how an application of cognitive concepts to design thinking practices can help technical communicators identify the flexibility they have in creating content for different audiences. Such understanding can help technical communicators find a workable balance between the strategy to use and the flexibility they have when developing products for others to use.
The third article in this issue is “Signaling Context in Topic-Based Writing,” by Jason Swarts. The article, “investigates how relative ‘that’ and ‘which’ clauses are used to signal context in writing that is intended to be free of obligatory contextual connections to other topics in a documentation set.” Jason Swarts notes:
My article speaks to the complications of adopting a strategy of flexibility, actually. Whereas in book-based writing the strategy for communicating with end users could be to lead them through content toward an idealized goal, one of the aims of topic-based writing has been to create flexibility as the goal. When content is presented as granular topics, we afford end users the flexibility to chart their own progress through the documentation, the flexibility to put together a message that satisfies their situated needs. But this flexibility needs to be balanced with attention to the assumptions that writers make of their readers and their ability to work with the flexibility that the topic-based media have provided. The recommendations that I offer in the article show ways that writers can provide subtle, strategic guidance without stifling the flexibility that readers need.
The fourth article is “Helping Content Strategy: What Technical Communicators Can Do for Non-Profits” by Guiseppe Getto and Suzan Flanagan. In this article, Getto and Flanagan’s research “explores how technical communicators can assist non-profits by helping them develop effective content strategies.” The authors note:
Flexibility is key when working in content strategy, especially with non-profits. Non-profits frequently do not have the resources available to private businesses to pay for first-rate content strategy, so it’s important to meet them where they are. Practitioners should ask themselves: what can the organization improve based on the resources they have access to? At the same time, many non-profits don’t have a strategy for their content, meaning working with them to develop one is also a key part of improving their organization. The strategy needs to be realistic and grounded in their actual resources, however, not necessarily based on best practices that work for larger, better-funded organizations. As a rule of thumb, don’t be afraid to deviate from best practices if it improves the organization, but always seek to educate the non-profit in best practices in case resources become available in the future. Hopefully, your efforts will improve the organization, funding will increase, and they will be able to apply best practices in the future. That’s always the goal.
The final article is “Snowpocalypse 2021: Understanding Stakeholder Topoi in the 2021 Texas Power Grid” by Rachel Martin Harlow. This article “is the first step in exploring how public policymakers use the expert knowledge and nonexpert knowledge they acquire in oversight hearings.” In response to my question, Rachel Martin Harlow wrote:
Flexibility is particularly important when using computer-aided content analysis. While this technology is rapidly improving, it is still bound to whatever denotative meaning is programmed into the software used to code documents. The use of artificial intelligence will help identify connotative meaning and may eventually be robust enough to identify irony. However, in policy discourse particularly, there is much to be learned from what is not expressed in words. Humans are still superior at reading between the lines and completing enthymematic reasoning. Even the best strategy for interpreting large data sets will miss points of importance if only computer-aided content analysis is applied.
The authors in this issue provide us with important answers to questions about how to be both strategic and flexible in the important work of technical communication. The articles provide important recommendations about usability and social justice, helping readers to locate contextual information, enhancing design thinking, developing content strategies for nonprofits, and using content analysis on public policy discourse.