Interview by Martin Wall, Membership Director at STC Carolinas
Dr. Huiling Ding is an Associate Professor of English at North Carolina State University (NC State).
Her roles include:
- Director of the MS in Technical Communication program
- Faculty member with the Ph.D. program in Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media
How would you describe the field of Technical Communication to a person who has never heard about the topic before?
I am in the process of building a “3+2” program at NC State in which students spend their fourth year’s first semester finishing up their Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree and then spend the next 3 semesters getting a Master of Science (MS) degree. They finish their BA and MS degrees in 5 years in this program.
We work with quite a few Chinese universities in this program. Most of the students in those groups have never heard of Technical Communication. I usually begin my work with them by explaining that Technical Communication helps build bridges between both traditional and new technology with both users and the wider public. How do we as consumers/users use new technology with computers, apps and now voice user interface? How do we as Technical Communicators connect with the consumers/users of the companies whose products we are trying to get them to use?
When we address students, as well as companies, we often encounter the question, “What is Technical Communication?” Our response should be to have them take a broad look at various genres they encounter on a daily basis and ask them, “Which one of these genres is not technical communication?” I encourage my new students to use hypothetical scenarios and stories before they come up with the answer: “None of them!” People need to understand that the importance of technical writing and communication lies in the fact that it is not far removed from our ordinary life and impacts everyone. We write to help people understand technology and the need for technical communication has never been greater because technologies are everywhere!
Just to give you a few examples of this principle:
- All items, including electronics in your home and furniture from Ikea, come with instructions. Even Legos come with them.
- Scientific experiments and manufacturing techniques often have to have tutorials to explain their use. In the field of research in particular, genetic treatments and clinical trials require explanations to both professional scientists and to patients who may not have a high level of education.
- Educators must teach students how to learn skills in ways that they find relatable when they possess a lower level of knowledge than the teacher.
- In the world of information technology (IT), you have websites, mobile phones, apps, chatbots, voice user interface that must use special techniques to pass along these skills as well.
- Even in entertainment, people must be taught how to perform a song or produce films with some form of instructions.
Even Legos come with instructions…the need for technical communication has never been greater because technologies are everywhere!
What do you feel is the greatest reason that organizations need people with higher level technical writing skills today (i.e. software, electronics, cell phones)?
I will teach a Project Management class during the spring semester, so I have given this question a lot of thought!
We serve users’ needs throughout the product life cycle (the development and testing of the product) and the customers’ “purchase journey” (making sure that the user/consumer has a good experience and will come back in the future).
We divide the role of the Technical Communicator in the product or service’s lifespan into two distinct roles:
- Pre-sales – the time in which any product or service will have to be promoted by explaining its features and benefits
- Post-sales – the time in which tech support must make the user/consumer’s experience more smooth and let them solve it by themselves if possible w/o walking into a store or calling customer service/support.
Many customers will buy a newer version of the same products. This makes it very important that they know that a product is reliable and that the company providing the product gives excellent customer service. They will feel confident that their repeat purchase will have the same desired outcome! If we want that to happen, we need customers to leaver reviews that reflect the fact that they had positive and smooth experiences and, just as importantly, that all transactions took place quickly. That is why making the product more usable and well liked is essential to a company’s bottom line.
A prime example of this principle that came into my personal experience took place with the educational services site of Lynda.com. NC State had started out with a few small, individual subscriptions to this site. These subscriptions ended up being used so much that individual departments decided to start buying their own. So many positive customer reviews were written by respected university students and faculty that it prompted NC State to eventually buy a subscription for the entire university! Lynda.com’s online educational resources would not have been so successful at NC State if it were not for the elegant and high-quality pre-sales tutorials that potential future subscribers were able to view before they ever used or purchased the product.
Technical Communicators should take away from NC State’s Lynda.com story the fact that even videos can be considered technical communication documents! During our User Assistance conference, our professional Technical Communicators explained that they are no longer just writing documents, they are also creating videos. These are especially a key resource for young users who would much prefer watching a video as opposed to reading a document due to finding the video much more engaging. Making videos carries unique challenges, however, for the Technical Communicator must ensure that the topics covered in the video are relevant and that the intended audience can actually follow the video.
Consider how your writing products help customers throughout the product lifecycle.
Briefly describe the key skills of Technical Communication that you and the rest of NC State Technical Communication faculty want students to learn before they graduate. Have these skills changed or evolved over the past few years?
I have been talking about this in my class all semester! The important thing to remember is that not all skills will have the same “shelf life” in which they will be useful and relevant.
Longer shelf life skills include:
- Rhetorical skills
- Search skills
- Working with case studies
- Observation studies
- Literature review and synthesis
- Data mining (working with large data sets)
- Coming up with conclusions related to the data sets
- Project management skills, especially time usage, personnel and cost/risk management
- Research skills using ethnography, audience analysis, user analysis and synthesis
These skills do not fade away from being essential due to changes in technology or cultural trends because they fill needs that will never truly go away. For students to succeed, they have to recognize the need for them to compose/communicate with different genres. Collaboration/interpersonal skills are particularly important because it is virtually guaranteed that any job that you work in will involve working with project managers, communications experts, etc.
Shorter shelf life skills typically include:
- Individual technologies
- Software and design tools
- Search engine optimization (SEO)
- Regulations and laws concerning copyright and access
The reason for these skills having a shorter shelf life is that technology changes very fast. Technical Communication students at NC State used to use Adobe Design and Adobe Dreamweaver but now they are switching to HTML, CSS, and DITA. Many Technical Communicators are also moving on to DITA and XML rather than the old tools. Other new technologies include video production and video editing. Instructional videos for users and search engine optimization, etc. are resources that tend to get out of date very fast. You have to move on from different pieces of equipment as well, such as different cameras and new software programs. This is why it is just as important to have the ability to teach yourself new tools as it is to have knowledge of the tools themselves. You must also make sure that your skills are transferrable to other parts of the marketplace.
The art of rhetoric plays a big part in your teaching curriculum. Can you tell us how technical writers weave ethos, pathos and logos into their work?
Ethos – You need to have credibility and trust, i.e. the “you and me” approach. You must make yourself appear as a credible communicator by showing that you have the skills to research, design, write and edit. We have to present ourselves competently for every project and build your reputation as “the” expert in technical communication by being the authority on technical writing, medical writing, grant writing, etc.
Pathos – Technical Communicators must sometimes make emotional appeals to customers by building identification with positive use of voice, tone, ethics. You must take your audiences’ well-being into consideration. How can you impart your message in an ethical manner without doing harm? Positive connections that you establish can provide them with an aesthetic design. You can also use mapping to achieve goals. Make it accessible and confident that they can follow along, do not make them feel stupid or you will have no audience!
Logos – Logical appeal is always in the text in the form of methods and evidence. It is particularly important to show organizational evidence. What can you do to demonstrate that your proposals/solutions/approaches are the best? Back up your claims with logic, user research, and present that research effectively. Show why your way of doing things is powerful, valid, legitimate, effective, useful and better than others.
These three types of rhetorical appeals are essential to visualizing our work. They form a lifelong triangle that we work with all the time.
What challenges do you feel new graduates who have technical writing degrees are facing? What do you believe that they are doing to rise to those challenges?
Our graduate students are very marketable. We have been seeing almost a perfect employment rate with full-time jobs upon graduation. However, if a student is struggling they may be lacking in a few key areas.
First off, it is very important to build a portfolio with different skills. Students can create “artifacts” during their time in our program such as brochures, flyers, tutorials, etc. that they can use to demonstrate their skill. One common mistake that we encourage students to stay away from is creating these documents using Word. Word is largely seen as a tool used only by amateurs. They should use InDesign or similar programs to create more sophisticated materials. We also encourage them to use WordPress to create websites and produce artifacts such as grant proposals or “White Papers.” White Papers are documents that are different from research papers, in that they do research with important impacts, i.e. dealing with how to demonstrate a scientific theory that will inform policy with research evidence and then will try to suggest specific and immediate policy changes based on recent research, field notes, etc. They show those artifacts to potential future employers and clients to build their credibility.
Students are also encouraged to go to meetups, symposia, conferences, and seminars in order to help develop their research and practical skills in different areas. They need to remember that they will need presentation skills that are just as valuable to success as their technical knowledge. Online learning tools such as Lynda.com, LinkedIn, Coursera and even YouTube are great sources of learning new skills and gaining knowledge of new topics. We have found Coursera to be particularly useful for Technical Communication because it offers many classes in the humanities and social sciences. This massive open online course (MOOC) site allows users to take courses for free, to obtain certificates with very small fees, or to audit a class without official certification. We have also found it useful to utilize the website SlideShare because it allows anyone to upload their PowerPoint slides or training materials online. These tools allow a person to develop an online presence by uploading presentations that potential future employers and clients can be exposed to. As a result, these area very resource for building up your reputation.
Lastly, remember that If you don’t know important technologies, then you are not working hard enough! The opportunities are certainly available, you just have to look in the right places.
Many students use their time in your class to work on projects to prepare them for their future careers. Can you tell us about a project (or projects) of special interest that you’ve seen in your class in the past year that really stood out to you as unique or innovative?
We recently had a Capstone project that centered around the use of augmented reality (AR) tutorials for 3D printing. The student struck a deal with the software company which allowed her to to use their AR software for free for a semester. In exchange, they were allowed to use her project for publicity purposes. The project was very challenging and had a high learning curve, but she did a fantastic job with it. With the final version of the program that she designed, a person could point their phone at the part of the 3D printer that they wanted to use and would instantly get a short instruction on how to operate that section of the device. The app also listed the safety warning messages and alerts associate with that area of the 3D printing process. A great deal of information architecture design went into establishing how it worked and what types of problems users would encounter in the process.
We also had a very interesting project that that studied crisis/risk communications during the recent hurricanes. The project focused on the Greenville/Outer Banks, NC area and examined how to improve their hurricane and post-hurricane communication policies using social media and traditional communication tools. But since many of those resources are not available in hurricane-afflicted areas, they also studied the usage of walkie talkies and house to house walking as communications methods! Many people who stayed behind were in demographics that were elderly, poor, homeless etc. and would not have access to electricity or wireless communications, so this was particularly relevant to those parts of the population.
Lastly, I saw a project that focused on search engine optimization and branding in India and Pakistan. It mainly focused on using style guides. It used typeface and logos to create a consistent brand with a small range of colors.
You serve on the board of Technical Communication Quarterly, Written Communication, and Rhetoric, Globalization, and Professional Communication. Can you tell us a little bit about how your experience in working with 3 major technical communication organizations has changed how you see the field of technical writing?
By serving on editorial boards of those top-tier communication journals, I get to review articles for them, there is a minimum number that you are required to read every year. This work helps me to see some innovative research approaches that are being taken. Young scholars often deal with emerging issues and industry practices. For example, one of the articles did a study on how authorship disclosure works if the authors of news reports are robots! How does news in the Washington Post and similar sources decide to disclose their authorship policies if it is a robot instead of a human being? Some of the news items today have been produced by robots, but the agencies have not disclosed their authorship. Sometimes they will label it as having “no author,” sometimes they will put the company that invented the robot writer, sometimes they will put the programmer, etc. When studies were conducted that took a look at the ways that audiences reacted to both human and robot authors, they did not find a big difference in the audience’s perception between the robot and human written articles! They could often not tell which was one or the other if the authorship was not listed. This opens up the door to all kinds of questions such as “What if a robot-authored article contained a serious mistake that will lead to losses or consequences, who will be legally liable for the damages?” The good news for Technical Communicators is that the robots mostly generate their content by pulling resources from all over the web and putting them together, so they cannot produce “original” content – at least for now.
In a more general sense, the things that I pay attention to are:
- Reading extensively and selectively in general – stay curious
- International trends and interdisciplinary perspectives
- Emerging topics of concern to Technical Communication practitioners
- New and interesting projects that bridge academia and industry
- Transformational changes in AI technologies and applications
- Finding ways to better prepare future students for the types of educational/employment challenges they will face in 5-10 years
Is there anything else you want to share about yourself or your experiences in Technical Communication?
Looking at industry trends, I am interested in emerging topics of concern to practitioners. We want to think about the challenges that our profession will face in the long term. I have been reading about how new developments in machine translations have led to professional translators having to shift to post-editing work due to being unemployed or underemployed. This has had a serious professional impact up them. Sometimes I wonder if there will be a similar kind of impact with artificial intelligence upon our field of technical writing. We need to all as technical writing professionals take a look at the challenges together by asking “How are we going to teach writing if AI can do it as well as we can?” and “How do we stay valuable, productive and original?” I am very interested in how we stay proactive regarding what is happening in the industry. What new skills are emerging? There are tasks in your industry that no one wants to touch because they are new. But if you get yourself into them then you can become a leader! IBM has been paying their employers to do machine learning. A sense of crisis can be a great skill to have and being able to work with people will remain valuable skills.