August 28, 2015

How Do We Bridge the Gap Between Academics and Practitioners in Tech Comm?

Tom Johnson, a San Diego based technical writer, recently raised a highly relevant and intriguing question on his blog: Why is there a divide between academics and practitioners in tech comm?  As a PhD student dually active in both the academic and practitioner realms of technical communication, I feel compelled to join the discussion.

Technical communication practitioners have all sort of problems. For example, determining how big or small topics should be in a certain project. I know from personal experience that practitioners find it difficult to see how the knowledge academics produce can be used to address real, practitioner-related problems.

This goes deeper than academics failing to communicate with practitioners. It has to do with the fact that much of the academic research itself is weakly linked to the practical problems practitioners face. This fact is what makes practitioners uninterested in talking to academics — hence the gap.

If academics were to base their research on practical problems, and clearly communicate what real, practitioner-related problems their research is addressing, the gap could be bridged. 

But academics would protest: Our objective is not to solve the practical problems.

True. But we academics need to start from the perspective of a practical problem in order to identify a research problem (academic or conceptual—often wherever there is a lack of knowledge). A research problem is the base from which we formulate research questions. The answers we uncover then generate new knowledge which, in turn, helps practitioners to solve the practical problem.

To bridge this gap even further, we academics need to focus our research on the problems relevant to practitioners right now.  So what are they?

In my own research, the practical problem I’ve identified is that practitioners (including myself) tend to believe that users avoid user manuals, instead relying on unofficial sources.

This practical problem yields two main consequences: Since companies spend money designing and producing manuals, we can think of them as wasting their money. Furthermore, if the unofficial sources provide “wrong” information to users, other practical problems arise.

Watch a short introductory film about the aim of my research here.

This practical problem yields, in turn, many research problems. We do not know if it is possible to design technical information that users prefer over alternative, unofficial sources— nor do we know what the design characteristics of such information would be.

One way to begin tackling this research problem is to ask a number of research questions, like, for example:

  • To what extent do users actually use technical information designed by technical communicators? 
  • In which situations, where technical information is assumed to be used, is it actually being used? In which situations is it not being used?
  • In the situations where users are avoiding technical information, what is the reason? 
  • In situations where users are using technical information, how often is it actually solving the problem at hand?

In the approach I’ve taken, however, I do not ask such questions. Instead, I’ve focused my research on how humans behave when stuck in product use. I limit myself to situations where users are in the process of making a decision about whether to seek and use information as a means to solve a product-related problem. I believe that understanding this behavior helps us learn how to design user-friendly information— much like how the studies of the active user helped researchers formulate the minimalistic manual. I ask questions like:

  • If a user becomes stuck in product use and needs information, why, when, and how do they seek this information? 
  • What type of information do users need, and why?
  • What type of information sources do users prefer, and why? 

Once we have conducted our investigations, and answered all the questions, it’s vital that we then share our results in relevant forums where practitioners can be part of the discussion. 

Personally, I communicate the results of my research through my blog, and by writing articles in practitioner’s journals, such as ISTC Communicator. Here you can find my latest article on findability, and how it relates to fulfilling an information need: /site/templates/images/uploads/Comm1506Web_JL.pdf.

In the meantime, here’s a question for the tech comm practitioners out there: what type of practical problem would you like academics to base their research on?

About the author

Jonatan Lundin

Jonatan is a pioneering information architect backed by over 20 years dedicated to XML documentation, and designing for findability.

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