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  • 1. 978-1-4577-2126-7/12/$26.00 ©2013 IEEE Technical Communication on Life Support: Content Strategy and UX are the Reclamation Chris LaRoche Northeastern University c.laroche@neu.edu Brian Traynor Mount Royal University btraynor@mtroyal.ca Abstract - The continual redefinition and constriction of the technical communication field has reached epidemic proportions, so much so that the field as it has existed the last several decades could soon cease to exist. However, many emerging fields encompass aspects of technical communication, with user experience and content strategy the clearest examples. Discussion of how the integration of technical communication into these fields is happening on a practitioner’s level and how this will potentially change the face of the profession of technical communication will be investigated. Additionally, a review of how several technical communication university programs responded to this evolution will be discussed. Index Terms –Content strategy, practitioner, teaching, technical communication, usability, user experience INTRODUCTION User-centered design processes have pushed the role of the technical communication closer to the front-end of project development and extended to product evaluation by end users [1]. Expectations have been set that product design includes the use of properly developed personas [2] and rapid iteration of prototypes with appropriate usability feedback to inform decision making [3]. Ginny Redish [4] has stated ―Many technical communicators become usability specialists because they get tired of writing ancillary documentation… when the product itself communicates poorly.‖ This trend in recent years has been extended into the entire user experience with a product from interaction to value. In this article the authors take the position that there is less and less demand for the technical communicator only authoring content, but increasing demand for a broader and more strategically influential role in product development that encompasses both content strategy and user experience. With the rapid changes in the technical communication field and the increasingly relevant role of social media, the concept of content strategy has emerged in the last few years as a particularly important areawithin the software and Web-based technology fields, often positioned within the user experience umbrella. Content Strategy does not equal content management through single sourcing. William Hart-Davidson et al [5] identify how important work process and roles influence content management. They state―Attending to and fostering productive change in the writing culture of organizations requires expertise at the intersection of two strengths of our field: workplace writing research and usability/ interaction design. In fact, we have high hopes that the set of difficult problems presented by complex knowledge work distributed across an organization means that all organizations that must come to content management must come to it as a rhetorical problem (though few will use this language)—and therefore a problem of organizational identity and strategy—and not precisely as a problem of technique or technology alone.‖ While some introductory textbooks have integrated business practices to technical communication, few align to a product development life-cycle [6,7].Particularly lacking are textbooks that integrate and combine technical communication, user experience principles, and content strategy. Redish‘s ―Letting Go of Words‖ is one exception as it that deftlybrings together the increasing interdisciplinary nature of technical communication by focusing on usability and content strategy. Currently books such as this arean exception.A more encompassing view of the role, responsibilities, and methods used and required of technical communicators needs to be reflected in course textbooks and materials to better represent the expectations of the profession, particularly for practitioners within industry. DEFINING UCD & UX User-Centered Design (UCD) is a methodology that requires that the user of products be thought of and understood during the entire process of product conception, development, and implementation [1]. Research establishes the appropriate background of users and informs design decisions. Usability testing at various stages of development provides a means to demonstrate product capability and iterative improvements. While user
  • 2. feedback is sought, it is only one contributor to design decisions. Marc Hassenzahl [8] provides a detailed discussion on User Experience. He describes how we design for experience and points to a number of successful products and services such as Apple‘s iPhone. ―Psychologically, an experience emerges from the integration of perception, action, motivation, and cognition into an inseparable, meaningful whole.‖ writes Hassenzahl. This suggests that a technical communicator must have a thorough understanding of both product and users. As user expectations for intuitive interfaces with minimal information and appropriate validation of processes continue to rise, then this ‗experience‘ needs to be designed such that the user recognizes the value in the interaction. For example, Facebook users recognize that the experience of the Facebook content management system makes the value easy to assess. DEFINING CONTENT STRATGY The concept of content strategy involves bringing together organizational business goals with existing organization content. Using various user experience methodologies,content strategy audits help streamline organization content to maintain a focus both on the needs of users and ‗messaged‘ content in a consistent and clear way from the organization‘s perspective. Another goal of implementing an organization-wide content strategy is to effectively reduce the overall costs of content throughout the organization. Some interesting results from an STC survey by Drayton and Hopper [9] on current use of Content Management (CM) and Single Source Systems (SSw).Drayton and Hopper‘s 2008 survey (276 participants) indicated that 50% of the respondents used SS/CM methods and tools. More than half of the total respondents worked in the high tech industry. SSwCM made up 20%, SS made up 17% and CM-only was 13%, Drayton and Hopper reported that respondents using single sourcing only more strongly indicated that the speed to develop information products was better than for CM or SSw&CM. While SSw&CM respondents more strongly indicated their systems had improved the usability of information products. On a high-level, content strategy entails taking, reviewing, and (if needed) modifying all communication an organization has and coordinating it so that you have a consistent and unified theme in how you present your organization to the outside world. This strategic issue involves coordinating all communication from marketing to user assistance. According to Kristina Halvorson[10]: ―Content Strategy plans for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.‖ LOOKING BACK OVER OUR SHOULDER In an extensive review of technical communicator leaders, Barbara Giammona‘s 2004 article is highlighted as an example of excellence in qualitative research in a collection of articles editedby Conklin and Hayhoe [11]. In this paper, Giammona, reinforces some themes from her 38 interviewees that suggest the technical communicator needs to move to delivering strategic value with user experience design and usability key areas of expertise. Throughout this paper, there is considerable emphasis placed on the need to demonstrate the ROI on the work of technical communication. Figure 1 indicates a range of influences possible in Technical Communication. FIGURE 1. VALUE CONTINUUM FOR TECHNICAL COMMUNICATORS. Some of the concerns in 2003 dealt with technical communication being handled off-shore where salaries were more competitive. At Carnegie Mellon, the Professional and Technical Writing program was part of the School of Design. Here the emphasis is on ―writing as a design process [11]. Content management and single sourcing were identified as important developments; however, their proponents were sometimes outside of the technical communication function. Programs in technical communication are and will be required to continually evolve to meet these challenges or face extinction. The ―next big thing‖ responses identified some technologies and skills. Besides the tools skills required, many of these skills listed fall within the user experience and content strategy realm as it has evolvedover the past few years.
  • 3. FIGURE 2. TECHNOLOGY AND SKILLS FOR TECHNICAL COMMUNICATORS IN 2003. Giammano‘s article concludes with discussion on the following directions for the future. Become Part of the Development and Design Process Improve our Professional Societies Become Better Business People and Managers Repackage Ourselves for the Future An important issue that has not occurred that Giammano mentioned was the radical transformation of professional societies: particularly the Society of Technical Communication (STC). As Giammano [11] described the STC stated ―the organization must evolve to be more competitive moving forward.‖ The perception of the STC being ‗out of touch‘ with the needs of practitioners was an issue, but with the rapid changes in the field the last decade, this has become more acute. This issue is not specific to the STC, thought it might be a solidexample. With the rapid growth of user experience, there is a diverse numberof professional organizations that also have not successfully leveraged the profession‘s explosive growth with new membership: be it the Usability Professionals‘ Association (UPA/UXPA), Interaction Design Association (IxDA), Human Factors & Ergonomic Society (HFES), and various international and local Computer Human Interaction (SIG-CHI) chapters. There are also a myriad of other small locally spawned organizations, such as Meet Ups, that cater to specific and local needs. CHANGES IN TECHNICAL COMMUNICATIONS As experienced educators and practitioners in communications, there are exciting developments that provide opportunities in our field. The opportunities are there for people to get the academic background they need for exciting career positions. There are many alternatives for communities of practice. Some of these are professional societies and some are less formal. Venues where researchers and industry can meet are increasingly popular and in desperate need as the field changes at astronomical speed. Education This rapid evolution in the change and expectations of technical communicators has been reflected in academic programs as well. At one well-known university, the traditional technical communication curriculum has been revamped in the last few years to reflect this new reality. Writing is still a core component of the program, but not the only core. For example, within this program, several advanced writing classes have been eliminated or revamped considerably to offer courses on usability and user experience and information architecture. Courses in content strategy will be offered as electives starting next year as well [12]. Almost every course in this program has a goal that each student‘s final project will be a potential work-portfolio quality piece they could use in a potential job interview. Several other well-known universities that teach both undergraduate and graduate programs in technical communication have shifted their focus and even their names to a more encompassing title and less restrictive than solely technical communication. Jobs Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in their Occupational Outlook Handbook listed the term ‗Technical Writers‘ as positive for job outlook for 2010- 2020 [13]. How this prediction plays out, specifically within the IT, software, and Web industries is unknown. There has been a substantial decrease in the jobs and job opportunism for technical communicators over the past decade, with the past five years being particularly constricted. This change is both part of the restructuring of the industry that was systematic and happening before the UX boom and exacerbated by the rapid growth of UX too – often at the expense of technical communication positions. Bloch‘s article [14] surveying career paths in technical communication quoted a student being interviewed about future jobs in technical communication that summed up the current employment landscape well: ―Any tech communications interns would need to have very strong skills in usability, human factors research, or interaction design.‖ An examination of recent job postings on a variety of job posting locations shows a broader set of responsibilities and expectations being given to UX and Content Strategy positions over those posted for Technical Communicator. Additionally, many of the descriptions and responsibilities traditionally associated with technical communication are now being included within UX positions, often at the expense of technical
  • 4. communications, as we have understood the profession the past several decades. Some of the prominent UX educational programs and degrees for UX have drawn a significant proportion of potential students from the technical communication profession. Increasingly, the job profiles are indicating a broad set of responsibilities with a strong understanding of business processes with an emphasis on positive end-user experience (that is measurable) [15]. Professional Societies and Associations As mentioned earlier, the change and particular decline in the numbers of membership numbers within professional societies and associations has been significant. It is clear this is due to a number of factors: some due to overall changes within organizationsand some due to systemic issues within particular organizations. Upon discussion with both senior members of the STC and the UPA/UXPA, some interesting trends were uncovered. Upon talking with the STC central office, their membership peaked in the 1999/200 time frame with about 22,000 members and the last several years membership has fallen to about 5,000 members. That decline has been significant and due to many factors, but the rapid change in the technical communication profession no doubt has influenced this reduction. STC has taken varying steps to both respond to this change and also create additional revenue streams to compensate for this loss of membership income as well as creating new professional and educational opportunities for both members and persons interested in aspects of technical communication. [16] Due to many factors, there is not a single professional society or organization for UX professionals. The largest three organizations for practitioners in the field include the Human Factors & Ergonomic Society (HFES), the Interaction Design Association (IxDA), and the Usability Professionals‘ Association (UPA/UXPA). HFES has traditionally catered to human factors and ergonomics. IxDA has a focus on UX, but it is more of a design- focused organization for practitioners. The UPA/UXPA is an organization whose membership is mostly practitioners working within industry and encompasses many of the emerging fields of UX that include usability, information architecture, user research, design, and content. Discussions with the UXPA President revealed some interesting trends regarding membership at the international level. Membership peaked in 2008, dropped in 2009 and has been somewhat level since then at about 2300-2500 dues paying members. [17] So membership has remained stable but ―what HAS grown is the number of UXPA chapters and their relative size. But we don‘t have accurate numbers on that because not all chapters report their membership rosters or numbers to us [17].‖ Several of the UXPA chapters have annual conferences themselves (outside of the international conference), particularly Boston and Dallas,and each of those conferences in 2012 had more attendees than the international conference, and there were over 500 attendees at each conference. Much of the growth within the UX profession is happening at the local level. Another interesting note is that with the UXPA international conference and some local chapters, the numbers of presentation proposals has skyrocketed the last two years. For the UXPA international conference in 2012, they received 209 submissions and had an acceptance rate of 41%, while in 2013; they received 316 submissions and had an acceptance rate of 26%. [18] The 26% submission rate was for all submissions: ―the acceptance rate for panels and presentations (as a group) was less than 15%.‖ [19] Additionally for the Boston UXPA chapter annual conference for 2013, the rate of proposals for conference presentations was relatively stable between 2010 and 2012 and almost doubled for 2013 [20]. Part of the issue with the lack of membership increase proportional to job increaseswithin UX may be due to the fact many practitioners have less need for these organizations as they might have previously, as they believe they can obtain much of the needed professional connection through other methods. A generational component amongst ‗Gen Y/Millennial‘ might well be part of this issue with reduced numbers in professional societies and associations. Additionally, as the technical communication and user experience professions continue to become more diffused and diverse, these organizations might be deemed too niche to adequately address practitioner‘s increasing needs. The UPA/UXPA has made several attempts at usability and UX certification and it proved so controversial with the membership community that it has been abandoned several times the last few years. CONCLUSION Technical communication jobs for practitioners have fallen tremendously the last decade, oftenreplaced with UX and content strategy positions if replaced at all. This restructuring within the industry will continue for the foreseeable future. The reasons for this are many, including a ‗commodification‘ of technical communication, outsourcing of technical communication, dealing with reduced resources for content, attempts to improve overall customer satisfaction, and demands for reduction in delivered content. The increasing use of wikis, crowdsourcing, and design principles in creating content based on user feedback, input, and writing are further responses to these demands. For technical communicators to continue to be viably employable within the profession, understanding, using,and
  • 5. implementing the methods discussed here is a requirement for job continuation over the next few years. Barbara Giammona [11] was blunt: ―the new role of the technical communicator is going to be much more closely linked with that of the product developer-and that if we did not seek out this relationship, our function may become extinct.‖ That prediction is even more fortuitousa decade after the article was originally written. Hart-Davidson et al [5] state, ―We see writing in critical times of transition like those narrated in the casesabove. But for many other organizations, writing practices are not so obvious andnowhere near the list of mission-critical activities. This means that our expertise,too, is off the radar screen. This is why it is true, we would argue, that while themoment of coming to content management may well give us an opportunity toprove ourselves valuable, we also need to be careful to develop sustainable ways ofcoming to content management that can make writing work visible and accountableas part of an organization‘s thinking.‖ A broader, strategic role is possible for those with communication and design skills that place emphasis on user experience and business goals. Finally, this is also an opportunity for a professional society or organization to take the lead that will appeal to technical communicators, user experience professionals, and content strategistpractitionersthat all fall within the larger communication profession.Many of the roles of a technical communicator will continue to be completed, even if that title is no longer used or is replaced by terms of UX and/or content strategists. REFERENCES [1] C. LaRoche and B. Traynor. ―User-Centered Design (UCD) and Technical Communication: The Inevitable Marriage.‖Professional Communication Conference (IPCC), 2010 IEEE International, 7-9 July 2010. Conference Publications, pp. 113-116. [2] J. Redish. Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works.Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann. 2007. [3] B. Buxton. Sketching User Experiences – Getting the design right and the right design. New York: Morgan Kaufmann. 2007. [4] J. Redish, ―Commentary: Technical Communication and Usability: Intertwined Strands and Mutual Influences,‖ IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, vol. 53, no. 3, pp.191–201, 2010. [5] W. Hart-Davidson, et al. Coming to Content Management: Inventing Infrastructure for Organizational Knowledge Work. Technical Communication Quarterly, 17(1), 10–34. 2008. [6] J. Lannon and L Gurak. Strategies for Technical Communication in the Workplace. 2nd Edition. Boston: Pearson Education. 2013. [7] M. Markel. Technical Communication. 9th Edition. Boston, Mass: Bedford/St. Martin‘s. 2010. [8] M. Hassenzahl. ―User Experience and Experience Design.‖Interaction Design Foundation. [Online] http://www.interaction-design.org/encyclopedia/ user_experience_and_experience_design.html [9] D. Dayton and K. Hopper. Single Sourcing and Content Management: A Survey of STC Members. Volume 57, Number 4, November 2010 ● Technical Communication 375 – 397. 2010. [10] K. Halvorson, Content Strategy for the Web. San Francisco, CA: New Riders/Peachpit Press. 2012. [11] B. Giammona, ―The Future of Technical Communication – How Innovation, Technology, Information Management and Other Forces are Shaping the Future of the Profession.‖Qualitative Research in Technical Communication. Ed. J. Conklin, G. Hayhoe, Routledge, USA. vol. 51, no. 3, pp. 349-366, 2010. [12] Master of Science in Technical Communication. Northeastern University CPS Web Site [Online] http://www.cps.neu.edu/degree-programs/graduate/ masters-degrees/masters-technical-communication.php [13] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Accessed online. 15 February 2013. [14] J. Block. ―Envisioning Career Paths in Technical Communication: A Survey of Participants in a Technical Communication Graduate Program.‖Professional Communication Conference (IPCC), 2012 IEEE International, 8-10 October 2012. Conference Publications, pp. 1-8. [15] Knowledge and Content Management Specialist arvato UK & Ireland - Dublin (Ireland) (LinkedIn, 19 March 2013). [16] Phone conversation with Lloyd Tucker, Deputy Executive Director of STC Thursday March 28, 2013 10 am (EST) [17] Facebook Email conversation with Rich Gunther, President of UXPA March 20, 2013 2:22-2:45 pm (EST)
  • 6. [18] Email conversation with Nicole Tafyoa, UXPA Administrator, March 26, 2013 12:10 pm (EST). [19] Email conversation with Danielle Cooley, UXPA International Co Conference Chair, March 26, 2013 1:09 pm (EST). [20] Email conversation with Chris Hass, UXPA Boston President, March 26, 2013 1:09 pm (EST) ABOUT THE AUTHORS Brian Traynor is an Associate Professor in the Information Design program in the Faculty of Communication Studies at Mount Royal University. Courses taught include: Information Architecture, Usability, and Project and Content Management. Brian has research interests in user satisfaction measures and the attribution of blame by users. Chris LaRocheworks as a usability consultant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He has worked in the technology field for eighteen years. Chris is a Senior Lecturer at the College of Professional Studies (CPS) at Northeastern University. Chris teaches courses in Usability&User Experience, Information Architecture, Prototyping, and modern Irish History.