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May 14, 2002: Documentation Jockeys and People in Black

Three weeks ago I attended the first CHI2002/AIGA-ED (Experience Design) Forum. A mix of mostly visual designers and usability engineers (it was held in conjunction with CHI2002) wrangled with experience design, accentuating the positive through a collection of compelling case studies (kudos to Terry Swack and the other organizers). No religious wars broke out, at least not in public.

A week ago I attended the Society for Technical Communication's 49th Annual Conference. STC is a huge professional association, sporting sizable SIGs in information design (3,200 members) and usability (2,500). Those two SIGs co-sponsored an impressive track that included such luminaries as Joann Hackos and Ginny Redish (kudos to organizer Whitney Quesenbery).

I certainly didn't attend every session, but aside from my own panel, I don't think I heard a single speaker utter the phrase "experience design". (And I was definitely an outsider at STC.)

This worries me. Don't technical communicators see themselves as experience designers? Have they even heard of the term?

I can't help but think of what has happened in an eerily analogous field, library science. My home field has been dying slowly because too many of its practitioners have associated themselves with places (specifically libraries), not practices (e.g., organizing information regardless of format, medium, or location). Practices have a future because they're portable. But the buildings full of books aren't, and right or wrong, they're under attack.

Are technical communicators also in danger of locking themselves into a narrow cage, linking themselves inextricably in the public mind as people who only write help documentation? They are experience designers, and they offer a huge amount of wisdom to the rest of us. Maybe the sizes of STC's SIGs are a hopeful sign of entry into the emerging interdisciplinary world of experience design.

On the other hand, I'm also worried that AIGA-ED isn't making the effort to reach out to technical communicators and other important communities. If AIGA-ED is going to take the lead on developing a definition of experience design that we can all get behind, are they inviting the right people to the table? This is no small task; technical communication is only one of many fields that aren't yet represented in AIGA-ED.

AIGA-ED is a group of volunteers (I'm one), and there's only so much that we can do. But we've got to do something; otherwise we risk crafting a definition of experience design that is both dangerously imbalanced and not welcoming to thousands of practitioners, technical communicators and others, that should be lining up to get under the big tent of ED.

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Comment: Andrew (May 16, 2002)

Of course, "we" won't be able to specify the definition of ED once other groups are at the table. Reaching out to other disciplines means that we will certainly have to give up some control over what we think that term means (as if we had a coherent definition now....)

The Society for Technical Communication addresses itself to "..everyone else whose job involves communicating technical information." I wonder if the often wishy-washy goals of ED ever included that dry topic?

Too often it seems that ED is simply so vaguely framed that people probably respond: "oh, yeah, I guess that sorta describes what I do." Perhaps rather than redefining professions as meta-professions, what ED can offer those other groups is methods for integrating their jobs/ techniques/ deliverables/ results with other groups "under the ED tent".

So, rather than the current "ED is everything, and I do lots of things, so I am an experience designer" approach, maybe ED ought to try to reinforce connections between related disciplines: how does Journalism work with Usability, or how do Instructional Designers work with Management, etc.

Incidentally, check out the Strategic Plan for the STC at http://www.stc.org/PDF_Files/StrategicPlan.pdf Notice how they are wrestling with nearly identical issues as IA and ED: how to increase the profession's visibility, how to figure out what the decision-makers think of it, how to get more of "us" into higher ranks, how to "improve organizational models" (maybe they need an IA...).

Comment: Ralph Brandi (May 16, 2002)

I think maybe most of the tech writers who were interested in things other than just writing documentation have moved on to become information architects. :-)

(I'm a recovering tech writer myself....)

Okay, that's the snarky comment. The real comment is that I think it's just a matter of terminology. The thoughtful tech writers I've known and worked with over the years realize that they're orchestrating an experience. I just don't think it's occurred to them to call it experience design when the term "writing" has served so well for so many centuries. The good tech writers I've known appreciate economy of words. Writing is what they do, so writing is what they call it. "Experience design" is kind of implicit in that.

Comment: Hilary Marsh (May 20, 2002)

Technical communicators are not the only ones involved with the message and the words on a site. Content strategists exist to match the messages companies want to deliver, the messages audiences want to hear, and the technical constraints and possibilities posed by the web medium to create -- you guessed it -- an experience.

So why aren't content strategists (and content managers, for that matter, who orchestrate this stuff over the long haul) involved in the experience design community and with these discussions? I haven't quite been able to figure that out, myself.

I think part of the reason is that there still aren't that many of us out there, and we're spending our time explaining what we do and selling our value to clients. We don't always have time to participate in larger discussions like these. Also, content strategists are alone in the communications profession, surrounded by people who are really good at identifying and talking to audiences but with little tech savviness. Of course, these are generalizations, but they're not far off the mark.

It's hard to be the primary advocate for user-centered content in a discussion when there's already someone else who owns "information." From my point of view, the two are basically inseparable. When I worked as a communicator in print, I was the person on a team responsible for figuring out who we need to talk to, what their perspective is, and how to marry that with what the client wants to say. On the Web, much of that role is taken by IAs -- where does that leave us? Too often, as just the executors of other people's strategy. Content strategy is still not automatically included in Web projects, especially if time or budgets are tight.

I don't mean to sound bitter, because I'm not. I've been steadily consulting on content strategy and content management, which are nicely complementary to IA and design. And I do try to make some time to keep up with discussions like these, and participate occasionally.

I'd love to see more communities of practice work, more looking outward from design and IA to others addressing many of the same issues from different perspectives.


Comment: France (May 28, 2002)

I concur that technical writers actually end up being a trustworthy pool of talent to recruit from for IA. In my User Experience group one of our more thoughtful Information Designers is a very talented technical writing who specialized in writing content of the web.

Over time it became obvious that he WAS designing an experience and put together a very thorough Style Guide for our site which has been adopted corporate-wide. He is now one of our more trusted IDs and has a perspective on things that allows him to work smoothly with Visual Designers and others.

Comment: joe (Jun 10, 2002)

I would be cautious in casting technical writers as being uninterested in the "user experience." Indeed, long before graphic designers began wearing black and silling Sobes for free as they morphed into Web designers, technical writers have been melding elements of rhetoric, HCI, visual design (graphic, information, and document), and cognitive psychology as they attempt to identify who the consumer of information products is. The main problem for these tech writers is the exigency of (usually) software companies: the same bad habits Web projects have experienced in terms of project discipline have occurred for years on tech writers' watches.

Too bad, really...because veteran tech writers (the more forward-thinking ones, not the weenies worried about "like" versus "as" or the "decline of English as we know it") have struggled, trying to center products on meeting users' goals and enhancing the experience of using products. What bothers me is that the IE/ED world hasn't opened up more to tech writers....

Comment: Lou (Jun 10, 2002)

Joe, my feelings exactly. It really is too bad. Not enough mutual reaching out.

Comment: Ralph Brandi (Jun 10, 2002)

I couldn't agree more with Joe, particularly on the troubles web creators and tech writers face. Many was the time when I was a tech writer that my lead writer and I would plead with the project manager for access to the people who would actually be using this thing we were writing about. We were never able to convince them to let us talk to the users, although once or twice we did get permission to provide users with drafts, which they were requested to provide feedback on.

As for whether the IE/ED world is open to tech writers, I think maybe it's just that those of us who are here aren't visible as tech writers. I was pleasantly surprised at the IA Summit to meet people like Joe who came out of the tech writing world. I think it's a more common path than is readily apparent.

Comment: Jon Ashley (Jun 19, 2002)

The link mentioned for the CHI/AIGA-ED forum is 404 ( http://www.formandcontent.net/chi2002/forum.htm )
Any thoughts on whether the content's been moved, removed or was the URL wrong to begin with?

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