Technical Communication

Audience Awareness

Business and technical writing is often, arguably always, composed for the consumption of an audience, known or imagined. In formal writing on Technical Communication, audiences are often referred to as “discourse communities”. The term "user community" is also common, and less academic. "Readership" is another less technical term. Undoubtedly there are more. Could the quantity of labels be interpreted as evidence of the significance of the "audience"?

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Field of Research/Key Research Questions

It is essential that technical communicators be literate designers of visual information, since the more they know, the better will be the results of their collaboration with graphics artists. The principles governing visual communication evolved from those used for printed information. [1] Due to ever increasing preference for online media, information professionals including graphic designers, multimedia authors, and technical communicators are endeavouring to expand and improve on existing, print-oriented design guidelines to accommodate and exploit the idiosyncrasies and benefits of online delivery.

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Effectiveness and Limitations of General Methodology and Specific Methods

In case #2 we first encountered the researchers’ probing technique, in which testers escalate the specificity of questions to extract increasingly detailed answers. What regulates this probing is not mentioned (for instance: does questioning cease upon satisfactory answer?). If probing failed to yield insight, the testers drew subjects’ attention to specific matters, but could a subject’s lack of comment not be enlightening?[1] Also, by mentioning a feature, did the testers exaggerate its importance, leading subjects to award it unwarranted attention and inflate their responses accordingly?

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Early in the article, the authors declare that little current research focuses primarily on visual communication. Perhaps this is due to the divisibility difficulties their own case studies highlight, and because evaluating visual communication in stark separation from usability is an undertaking of doubtful practicable worth.[1]

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This series of articles examines the media preferences of technical communicators within the conceptual framework provided by the article Communicating Channels used by Technical Writers Throughout the Documentation Process (McGee, 2000), of which critical summary forms this first section. Following that is a comparison of the results of a survey issued to 23 technical translators/communicators in replication of McGee’s empirical method for validation or reassessment of her arguments and findings with regard to the Japanese Technical Communication context. Differences and similarities in the results of the surveys (incorporating influential intercultural factors) are then presented within expanded discussion of Media Richness Theory (hereafter “MRT”). Assessment of the value to my workplace practice of MRT and the surveys’ findings closes this essay.

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The Survey

Key Findings

All respondents reported using all channels proposed by McGee; respondents overwhelmingly favoured face-to-face meetings at project start; written communication was markedly more practiced when conflicts arose (although, perhaps surprisingly, 36% favoured face-to-face meetings to resolve conflicts). These results are on the whole correlative with MRT, but McGee posits no explicit hypotheses or predictions, citing instead a conservative combination of SI theory and MRT concepts that she implies her findings will support. As if to increase the probability of that outcome, the sample is small and the tightness of the survey’s questions precludes subtlety and potentially informative data (cf. MacNealy’s  “fill-in-the-blank”-type questions, which might have been more generative, albeit more problematic to summarize and/or less hypothesis-compliant).     

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MRT and the Findings of the 2006 Survey

According to Daft and Lengel (1984), media richness is a function of four key criteria:

  1. the medium's capacity for immediate feedback
  2. the number of cues and channels available
  3. language variety
  4. the degree to which intent is focused on the recipient

(The greater social presence of a medium creates increased immediacy of and reception for the message, due to the higher number of channels used in conveyance.)

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Applicability to Professional Practice

The findings of the 2006 survey were fully correspondent with the author’s expectations, and offer little new information or useful insight. Although of minimal import to my current workplace practice, the results of the 2006 survey provide representative data from which longstanding beliefs of English-language technical authors in Japan might be supported and future studies into technical communication practices within the Japanese workplace might draw.

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The findings of O’Hara and Sellen have little applicability to my work situation, which features only one process that can effectively utilize the advantages of paper: namely proofreading/checking. All writing is produced by means of applications, but copy is printed for final checking whenever time permits. Impromptu jobs frequently involve jotting translations onto paper, which is an ideal and practical medium for such tasks, but these consume at most, several minutes. The overwhelming bulk of the workload arrives as PDF files, is edited via Adobe Acrobat, and then returned for SGML/XML setting.

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