Where are they now? A voice from the present.

You’ve probably looked at our list of courses for the spring and wondered “Where will these take me? What will my future look like?” Courses, as single offerings in a list, don’t always sum up the big picture, do they? It’s really about what they mean as a whole–an aggregate set of competencies.

Of course, that can be hard to see when you’re on the outside looking in or when you’re in the eye of the coursework storm, so to speak. But, there is real value in your IDC coursework and that became crystal clear for me just moments ago. This morning, I received an email from a student in my IDC 6135 Website Design class. She’s busting with enthusiasm because she recently accepted an offer for a job. And, it’s a job she LOVES.

Our student–I’ll call her LB–wrote:

I got that job I was telling you about. Aside from being completely overwhelmed with classes and starting a new job, it’s been a dream. The job encompasses aspects of every class I’ve taken in the program. I probably couldn’t ask for a better opportunity. In the short time I’ve been there, I’ve been consumed with technical communication: educational and marketing materials, designing websites and content, leading communication efforts, preparing scripts/templates, writing blurbs/articles, and am planning to draft a social media editorial calendar to see if it will fly for the project.


I can just feel the sheer enthusiasm she’s got for the new position and all the different types of projects it includes. It is exciting to see what a student is doing–I can see pieces from the classes she’s taken with me and every other member of the IDC faculty. Seeing these pieces come alive in a professional setting is even better.

LB got this new position via a connection she made in one of our classes. Through group work and other student-to-student interactions, she made an excellent connection with JJ. As a part-time master’s student and fulltime working professional, JJ is very typical of the person you’ll meet in our programs. He got to know LB and when JJ heard of a specific job opportunity, he knew just the person to recommend–it was LB. Goes to show the power of networking in school, doesn’t it?

LB also told me:

I would never have been in this position without the program and everything I’ve learned from you and Drs. B,H,and O in the last 2 years…as well as the contacts developed. Great endorsement for the caliber of the program.

Aw, shucks! But in all honesty, LB….we can’t thank you enough for taking what you’ve learned and making it your own. It’s great to see where you are right now and to think about where you’ll take your IDC degree in your future. Keep us posted.

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Something for everybody in the Spring course offerings

Planning for spring courses starts early with registration already underway. Catalog descriptions can be a bit cryptic, so we are going to share a bit more of our insider information on the elective courses we’re offering this spring.
If you find more enticing options than you can take in a semester, check the 2-year schedule on our website for a glimpse at when these courses will be offered again.

Information Graphics, taught by Professor Betty Oliver

Emphasizing principles of design, students learn different ways of displaying information in this course. We begin with a review of best practices for creating data graphs. You will study the use of comics as a means for social change, and you’ll create your own comic. Another challenging but fun assignment is creating a set of visual instructions that is easy to read and follow in any language. You will research special topics and design and create a professional “newspaper infographic,” followed by an in-depth study of the complex but exciting field of interactive news infographics. Students taking this course will need a working knowledge of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.

Marketing Communication, taught by Professor Carol Barnum

Students with an interest in marketing communication, including marketing yourself for a job or consulting or business, really enjoy this course because it is so focused on products as deliverables. With a combination of individual and team projects, this course allows you to build your portfolio of products that reflect marketing communication in any medium. The team project is one selected by your team, in conjunction with a sponsor. The team chooses a not-for-profit organization in need of the talents and energies of the students to create a marketing plan and deliverables, one from each team member.
An online presentation to the sponsors on the last night of class is the highlight of the course, as the sponsors have always been thrilled at the results of the team’s work. With guest spots from some of the best marcom strategists in the business, the course provides the foundation to learn from each other and outside experts, while designing and creating marcom products.

Content Strategy, taught by Professor Laura Palmer

These days, you’ll hear more and more about content strategy, especially for web sites and other online platforms. Content strategy is a growing discipline that positions content as a business’s most significant asset. Through an ongoing cycle that includes development, analysis, presentation, measurement, evaluation and management, content strategists develop communication plans and create messages that meet both business goals and the needs of readers. Content strategists are also responsible for developing effective practices for search engine optimization; they also develop metadata and taxonomies to leverage findability
In this course, I focus on the current accepted practices of content strategy, but I add the element of using data—as derived from site analytics—to inform content decisions. This addition of analytics—or, data-driven rhetoric, as I call it—adds significant value to the content strategist’s job. With data, content strategists can make better assessments about the value of a site’s assets; as well, they have a quantitative metric for measuring the success of a strategic initiative.

Performance Technology, taught by Professor Keith Hopper

This atypical course is about getting people to get things done. It is the natural complement to Communications Project Management, also offered spring semester. Why don’t people do what they ought to do? Shall we train them again? These are the questions that open the class and by the end of the semester you will have some hard-nosed, time-tested tools to analyze workplace performance issues and make realistic interventions. You will ponder the astonishingly cogent thinking of the seminal thinkers in the field. Performance technology is the parent field of instructional design and if you are not sure why this would be, you must take this course. I am sometimes asked to name my favorite course. Pressed hard, I would answer Performance Technology. When I took this course in my graduate studies it was a life-changing event. I have not looked at the world in the same way since. The class concludes with a capstone presentation by a professional performance analyst from industry.

Communications Project Management, taught by Professor Keith Hopper

This highly refined course is the natural complement to Performance Technology, also offered spring semester. How do we get things done on time and according to specifications? Most projects fail. This sobering assessment ought to give us pause. This course introduces the fascinating and pragmatic word of Project Management and you will consider the great successes and the great failures in this arena. Just how did Henry J. Kaiser literally build liberty ships faster than they could be sunk? What went wrong with Mars Orbiter? You will learn the major phases in all professional projects and prepare the documents that accompany each. You will use the major software tool in Project Management. The course concludes with a capstone presentation by a professional project manager with a TCOM background.

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Spring 2012 Offerings

Registration for Spring 2012 has opened for Information Design & Communication and Information & Instructional Design graduate students, as well as graduate certificate students. As I look over our course offerings for this coming semester, I see a mini-history of the changing field of technical communication:

IDC 5001 Writing in the Professions
IDC 5002 Graphics in the Professions
IDC 6001 Professional Practices of Communication
IDC 6002 Information Design
IDC 6030 Foundations of Graphics
IDC 6035 Information Graphics
IDC 6045 Foundations of Multimedia
IDC 6110 Communications Project Management
IDC 6145 Performance Technology
IDC 6150 Marketing Communication
IDC 6903 Content Strategy

While we still place a high importance on strong writing skills as a foundation for professional work, we have increased the number and range of courses we offer that focus on developing the strategic decision making skills that are so important within leadership positions in professional and technical communication. A great number of our applied skills courses frame content development and content management as a design challenge, integrating image, sound and text in ways that best serve users’ needs and a medium’s affordances. We’re excited about this coming semester’s offerings–and the direction our curriculum is heading as we continue to fine tune our certificates and degrees within a rapidly changing profession.

Not yet a student at Southern Polytechnic State University? There’s still a little bit of time to apply to one of our graduate degree programs or graduate certificate programs. We have extended our deadline to November 15!

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More Data Visualization Competitions

Have you been to Visualizing.org yet?

The site has been around for a little over a year now, and it’s truly wonderful. Visualizing.org is a social media site for data visualization. They provide data for design projects, tools for sharing and embedding visualization projects, and a free forum for uploading and sharing work. According to their “about” page:

By some estimates, we now create more data each year than in the entirety of prior human history. Data visualization helps us approach, interpret, and extract knowledge from this information….We created Visualizing.org because we want to help connect the proliferation of public data with a community that can help us understand this data.

What is particularly intriguing and unique about Visualizing is their focus on using data visualization as a means of addressing social issues of global concern.

To help raise public awareness of health, energy, and environmental issues, Visualizing sponsors a series of challenges to its community, making data available to designers and awarding cool prizes for winners. Right now, they are sponsoring two challenges:

HeadsUP! Times Square Visualization Challenge: “Design an animated, data-driven indicator that alerts the public to current groundwater trends and conditions and brings this issue into focus.” Grand Prize: $2500, plus your data visualization featured on the 19,000 sq foot NASDAQ display in Times Square.

Economist Intelligence Unit U.S. Manufacturing Challenge: “Visualize the dynamics of U.S. manufacturing….Find a compelling story in the data and follow it through the past, present, and future of U.S. manufacturing.” Grand Prize: $2000 and a featured appearance on The Economist’s website.

Visualizing is also a unique forum in its partnering. Bringing together academic institutions, “knowledge partners” and “media partners,” they provide an important link between public scholarship initiatives and institutions with the resources to support these efforts on a large scale.

So, are you ready to use your information design and visual communication skills to make a difference?

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Bunny Slippers? I Don’t Think So

So our November 1 application deadline is rapidly approaching, and as I renew our department’s ads for our online degree and certificate programs, I am reminded once again of my number one marketing pet peeve:

Bunny slippers.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against cute and comfy household footwear. But you know the bunny slippers I mean–the ones that always seem to pop up in print and television advertisements for online degree program? Yeah, those bunny slippers.

OK, I get it. Distance learning lets you learn “anytime, anywhere”–and wearing any kind of footwear, apparently. But the problem is, in my reckoning at least, that when we market distance learning with an emphasis on convenience and “ease of fit,” we aren’t really capturing the whole picture. Let’s face it: online courses are hard work!

Online degree programs and certificate programs are great–for the past five years, our MS in Information Design and Communication has been available to students 100% online, and starting this fall, our MS in Information and Instructional Design will also be offered in a 100% online format. Without question, DL programs provide many students access to advanced degrees that they would otherwise not be able to pursue because of work or family conflicts.

But when we limit our marketing of online programs to this image of DL as comfortable, convenient learning, are we inadvertently sending the wrong message?

Success in an online program requires something greater than the easy on-and-off of slippers. It requires a significant commitment on the part of students. It also involves excellent time management skills and an ability to prioritize tasks. Would you recommend slippers to a juggler?

If we’re going to use footwear to market online degree programs, I would think we might want to choose something with a bit more traction. Something designed for quick and agile movement, sprinting when necessary (even the occasional bobbing and weaving).

Maybe track shoes?

So, if you were to launch a new campaign for distance learning, what sort of footwear would you recommend?

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The Economics of Usability

I recently discovered Human Factor International’s YouTube page, which has a number of very interesting and informative pieces on engaging web design, design for emerging markets, and the future of UX. Given a number of recent discussions I have had about the need for technical communicators, UX practitioners, and e-learning experts to insist on the professional status of their work (and not merely its trade status), I thought it would be worth it (pardon the pun!) to point out one video in particular:

Here, in an engaging format, is a clear-cut argument for the value-add of information design and user centered design professionals to a business in the common language of industries and corporations: return on investment.

HFI has also made this presentation available as a poster off of their website.

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User Experience and Technical Communication

In an editorial for a recent edition of The Journal of Usability Studies, our own Dr. Carol Barnum asks, “Why Should Technical Communicators Claim a Seat at the UX Table?” It’s a question Dr. Barnum has thought about in great depth over the years, and it is a question that has helped drive the evolution of our graduate program in Information Design and Communication. In the same article, Dr. Barnum goes on to explain:

The basic tenet of technical communication is user analysis. Everything starts with the end user. Frequently, the technical communicator is the person in the development process who focuses on the end user. Technical communicators see themselves as the user‟s advocate. And, traditionally, it is the technical communicator who shoulders the responsibility of making sense of a confusing or complex feature or interface. The oft-heard refrain from developers—“They can fix that in the documentation”—is the solution to addressing unusable aspects of a product, especially when usability research is not conducted until late in the development cycle, if at all.

As the field of technical communication has evolved, so too have the demands on programs such as ours to remain supple and responsive to those needs. Dr. Barnum points out that while tech comm may have its roots in more a more traditional understanding of audience analysis & classical rhetoric, increasingly the demands placed on technical communicators involve a complex set of issues related to information design, information architecture, and user interface. The broad penetration of information technology at all levels of society–from smart phones, to tablets and laptops, to the ubiquitous workplace desktop computer–has meant that we have all become “users” of information. And it is precisely at this point–the interface of human and device–where technical communication and user experience overlap.

The result, Dr. Barnum argues, are a set of challenges to industry:

  • Challenge 1: Technical communication has changed, but industry does not reflect this change. When it could and should be including technical communicators in development teams and UX research, the groups and roles often remain separate.
  • Challenge 2: Technical communication is often not recognized as a good background for UX job openings. When jobs are advertised, they restrict prospects to those with degrees, particularly higher degrees, in Human Factors, Cognitive Psychology, and related degrees—and they may not see Technical Communication as a related degree.
  • Challenge 3: The UX community doesn’t present or publish much by or about the work that technical communicators are doing in the UX arena. The conferences and publications that UX practitioners and technical communicators attend and contribute to are generally separate and distinct. Yet, the goals of each “group” in pursuing activities to improve user experience are, or should be, viewed as similar and compatible.

These are challenges to graduate programs as well. How have degree and certificate programs in technical communication evolved to reflect these changes in practice? How have they addressed the growing need for UX professionals in the marketplace? What steps have they made to bridge the gap between these “two worlds” and to emphasize their mutual, overlapping interests?

As we continue to evolve our Information Design and Communication curriculum at SPSU, these questions remain in the fore for us.

To read the JUS 6.3 editorial in its entirety, see: Redish and Barnum, “Overlap, Influence, Intertwining: The Interplay of UX and Technical Communication.”

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