Boettger & Lam: State of Technical Communication Research

Boettger, Ryan K., and Chris Lam. “An Overview of Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Research in Technical Communication Journals (1992–2011).” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 56, no. 4 (2013): 272-93.


Boettger and Lam analyze a comprehensive sample of experimental and quasi-experimental research within five leading technical communication journals to evaluate the current state of the field and call for more empirical research to further encourage the professionalization of the field.

Boettger and Lam investigated journals over a two decade period and found that the level of empirical research remained mostly the same over the period. The conclusion from this data point can be positive or negative, depending on your point of view. On one hand, the fact that empirical research remained at the same level is positive as it shows a healthy publication of empirical research to provide impetus for training, investigations, and analysis. On the other hand, that technical communication continues to publish empirical research at the same rate as 20 years ago indicates a lethargy and disinterest in principal academic research.

I am more inclined to this negative view, especially when Boettger and Lam’s research reveals that one person – Spyridakis – was responsible for the majority of experimental research. This finding shows a lack of engagement or a lack of knowledge among technical communication academics and practitioners on how to conduct experimental research. The lack of engagement shown by technical communication academics in particular hinders the development of the profession as there remains a lack of solid research to reinforce teaching principles, business guides, and the foundation of a vibrant academy.

While the lack of experimental research is worrying, Boettger and Lam’s investigation also showcased considerable apathy within the field itself. Many of the individuals interviewed by Boettger and Lam suggested they found case studies, tutorials, and literature reviews more useful than experimental research. This could have two causes: either, one, these individuals don’t understand experimental research, or how to interpret the data that emerges, or second, these individuals don’t consider experimental research integral to the discipline of technical communication. Either scenario is disappointing for technical communication, as, for the discipline to gain respect and momentum as a discipline in its own right rather than an after-thought to university English departments, technical communicators need to demonstrate the importance and unique nature of technical communication.


What emphasis, if any, should be placed on Research Methods as a requirement for a Technical Communication degree?

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Conklin: Future of Technical Communication

Conklin, James. “From the Structure of Text to the Dynamic of Teams: The Changing Nature of Technical Communication Practice.” Technical Communication 54, no. 2 (2007): 210-31.


Conklin investigates the rise of cross-functional teams (CFTs), and what this means for technical communicators. Conklin believes that technical communications are moving away from a craftsman model of individuals working on sole documents and towards a more collaborative approach where technical communicators are as much a part of a team as subject matter experts. Using two case studies where Conklin observes, questions, and records data of technical communicators working in CFTs, he concludes that technical communicators need to become more collaborative and more social than previous technical communicators and that this can only help the profession retain and remain relevant.

In his interviews with current technical communicators, Conklin identifies seven distinct themes in the answers he received from his survey participants:

  1. How do I fit in?
  2. A challenging and dynamic environment
  3. The burden and security of the past
  4. Finding the patience to allow the new technical communication to emerge
  5. Shifting from document/texts to communication/people
  6. Technical communication spans boundaries and makes us whole
  7. Finding the courage and wisdom to act

These themes are important ones for technical communication students to analyze. The importance of social and collaborative skills are rising in the current workplace environment and students ought be taught how best to maximize their skills in this regard. No longer is it a requisite that a technical communicator have strong writing and editing kills; they must be willing to adapt to change, be more involved with a business, and be prepared to embrace the communicator aspect of technical communication. As Conklin’s research demonstrates, technical communicators can no longer expect to work in silos, separate from the rest of an organization. They will be expected to be collaborative and effective team members, which may require a change in the focus of technical communication curricula to train new technical communicators effectively.


Why should technical communication practice move from solitary and textual to interactive and collaborative? Would this be a positive step for the profession?

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Amare & Manning: Robots, Resumes, and Rhetoric

AMARE, N., AND A. MANNING. “WRITING FOR THE ROBOT: HOW EMPLOYER SEARCH TOOLS HAVE INFLUENCED RESUME RHETORIC AND ETHICS.” BUSINESS COMMUNICATION QUARTERLY 72, NO. 1 (2009): 35-60.


Everyone will produce a resume at some point in their career: a resume, a one or two page snapshot of who they are, what they’ve accomplished, and where they hope to go. A resume is so vitally important to career success that a subgenre emerged during the Victorian era and undergone several transformations as technology developed to the modern era. Likewise, many methods emerged detailing the “best” way to produce a resume and secure an interview if not a job. Given the pressure on producing a successful resume and the advent of resume-scanning software, several rhetorical situations became evident and necessitated classroom discussion. This discussion was analyzed by Amare and Manning, who investigated how jobhunters attempted to “cheat” the system and secure that all-important interview.

Amare and Manning found that a majority of job applicants used deceptive tactics to ensure their resume passed the inspection of document scanning software – the “robot eye” – through the use of hidden (to human eyes) keywords, misused keywords, or typeface manipulation. The ethics of this decision making formed the spine of Amare and Manning’s discussion.

In their discussion, Amare and Manning discuss the historical development of the resume-writing genre and the interplay between potential hires and potential employers. The notion of rhetorical decisions in designing resumes is important, especially considering how many job applicants expand the definition of “lie” to secure a position. Amare and Manning conclude with a call for business communication teachers to inform their students about business ethics. Additionally, they also suggest:

  1. Avoiding or toning down monolithic sales-brochure themes for resumes
  2. Encouraging discussion of the resume as a truthful autobiographical narrative
  3. Discuss cases where individuals do deceive and why this is unacceptable ethically nor appropriate rhetorically
  4. Informing students that business communication studies contradict common advice to organize resumes as one-page keyword lists.

With these suggestions, Amare and Manning (somewhat idealistically) call for a drastic overhaul of resume expectations. While concentrating on the student and teacher side of resume creation, they spend little time on employer expectations beyond needing truthful summaries of potential candidates. Still, this is a necessary article to share with potential job applicants and how rhetorical choices for resume organization and design can be as good if not better than truth-stretching to meet an arbitrary number of  predetermined key words.


How can technical communicators spread good writing practices for resume creation?

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Hayhoe: Technical Communication Essence

Hayhoe, George F. “Core Competencies: The Essence of Technical Communication.”Technical Communication 49.4 (2002): 397-98. Print.


In this brief editorial commenting on the 50th anniversary of the Society for Technical Communication, George Hayhoe presents four areas he believes define the “core competencies” of technical communicators, and how these competencies differentiate technical communication from other professions.

Hayhoes four competencies are:

  • Creating and managing knowledge
  • Designing information that readers need
  • Communicating fluently in various media
  • Being part of a learning community

Each of these competencies has roots in the technical communication’s past, but these ideas also highlights growth into the future. In particular, the emergence of single sourcing requires a new and direct challenge to technical communicators. More than ever, technical communicators need to establish potential audiences and have the ability to write to each of them at the same time. This extends into modular authoring, where the “craftsman” model of technical writing is receding while the “factory” model of many authors contributing to multiple documents gains in popularity.

Hayhoe’s editorial is prophetic in some ways, as a decade later we can still identify each of his core competencies as integral to the technical communication profession. In other ways, Hayhoe’s identification of these areas also leaves the question as to whether the profession of technical communication has stagnated or if there is still room for growth as we move deeper in the 21st century.


If the profession of Technical Communication has stagnated, what can be done to reinvigorate the industry and inspire current and future technical communicators?

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Redish: Her Place in Usability History

Redish, Janice. “Technical Communication and Usability: Intertwined Strands and Mutual Influences.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 53, no. 3 (2010): 191-201.


Janice Redish’s essay is an answer to the multipart question, “How can Technical Communicators contribute to [a new approach to usability] the evaluation of more complex systems, to the more open exchange of data and methods, to the redefinition of the profession”?

She takes up this question as someone with an extensive background in technical communication and begins her response with her perceived idea of the history of technical communication. Despite some in the industry defining the start of usability studies starting in the late 1980s, Redish asserts that she, along with others, were conducting “usability studies” as early as the 1970s. Redish continues through the decades, highlighting examples of technical communicators and industry professionals who intertwined designing, writing, and publishing products with usability testing. At each stage Redish suggests that usability and technical communication are inextricably linked, and how many technical communicators morph into usability analysts or how usability analysts are more and more involved with the art and science of communication.

Following this brief overview of usability and technical communication history, Redish suggests four areas answering why technical communicators and usability designers are so inextricably linked:

  • Need for excellent collaboration skills
  • Ability to communicate clearly to multiple audiences
  • Understanding, and clarifying, complexity
  • Being open to change; quick to adopt and adapt new skills and new technologies

Since technical communicators and usability experts share these traits, Redish argues that the future of both professions is inextricably linked and that both fields should be ripe for cross-pollination.


While Redish suggests multiple reasons for the intertwining of technical communication and usability, do you think that the future of either profession lies in a combined role? Why or why not?

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Barnum & Palmer: Defining that Desirability Factor

Carol M. Barnum & Laura A. Palmer, “More than a Feeling: Understanding the Desirability Factor in User Experience” (paper presented at the annual meeting for ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2010), Atlanta, Georgia, April 10-15, 2010).


Barnum and Palmer report the results of several case studies investigating the use of user experience cards, which are used to determine user satisfaction. The authors contend that of the three major elements of gauging product usability (effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction), user satisfaction is the most nebulous and the most difficult to accurately determine. The primary obstacle is “acquiescence bias,” where usability participants tend towards higher value ratings than user observation suggests.

Over the course of five case studies, administered between 2006 and 2009, Barnum and Palmer took Microsoft’s desirability cards and used modified version of these cards to determine user satisfaction. They determined that the cards were useful in suggesting user satisfaction to a high level of consistency, although the authors note that the small scope of their study limits the wide-ranging impact such findings suggest.

The key finding from Barnum and Palmer lies in providing a model that best determines the true feelings of user participants and overcomes (to a degree) acquiescence bias among product evaluators.  Especially when user experience cards are combined with other usability evaluation tools such as video evidence, interviews, observations, and standard post-test questionnaires, a true sense of participant thoughts can be established.


Will more or fewer user experience cards generate better responses from study participants?

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Bacabac: ePortfolios as Assessment, Application Tools

Bacabac, F. E. “Creating Professional ePortfolios in Technical Writing.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 27, no. 1 (2012): 91-110.


With the advent of Web 2.0 technologies, having a web presence can improve a recent graduate’s job opportunities and enhance their job application. This web presence is usually an ePortfolio: a site that contains a collection of an applicant’s work, achievements, and experience. The caveat to this trend, however, is the need to ensure students know how to produce a compelling and useful portfolio that enhances their credibility and chances to secure a job.

To this end, Bacabac writes an article discussing best practices in teaching methods to help students produce compelling portfolios. For Bacabac, creating a good ePortfolio helps students demonstrate multifaceted literarcies as well as having a project that can remain dynamic and an ongoing repository of a student’s past and current work. The dynamic nature of an ePortfolio also allows a student to reflect on their work, their philosophies, and how they have changed with the knowledge they have gained and the practice they have garnered.

Bacabac lists six key literarcies students demonstrate by producing an ePortfolio:

  • basic
  • rhetorical
  • social
  • technological
  • ethical
  • critical

Using an ePortfolio to demonstrate this “textured literacy” helps students and graduates display many attritubutes employers find admirable and will help secure a position. With the four-assessment project suggested by Bacabac (which includes a proposal, document design, script, and professional portfolio) students are able to determine the rhetorical devices they need to use, as well as how to tailor a portfolio to the needs of future employers. Thus this assessment task helps instructors evaluate their students technical communicator literacy while also preparing their students for a compelling job application packet.


Are there any other literarcies that students could demonstrate using ePortfolios?

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