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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