Human Factors in High-Tech Writing: Targeting the Right Tool for Professional Development

Article excerpt

As computers continue to transform the work of writers, knowledge of new technologies can be career-boosting - for practicing professional writers who want to advance or to broaden their experience, for business communication students about to launch careers in a competitive market, and for those students' instructors, as well (Selfe, 1994). Some writers, of course, may continue to have successful careers without learning computer skills beyond word processing or desktop publishing. But employment advertisements for writers now often bristle with high-tech buzzwords, so that many writers may feel the pressure to acquire a "hot" new skill, recognizing that such a specialization will give candidates an edge in the current job market. However, there are now too many high-demand computer programs and other tools for any writer to have the ability, time, or training dollars to learn them all.

Nor does it make sense to leap in and pick a technology training path at random, even from among those widely predicted to remain in demand. The risk, of course, is that individuals will invest in a current technology that does not prove to be a good long-term fit for individual skills and interests.

A Human-Factors Approach

So how can instructors begin to choose, or help their students to choose, among current high-demand technologies? A human-factors approach to this dilemma suggests analyzing individual preferences first, and only then targeting a compatible technology. Both writers in the workplace and students completing technical communication programs have strengths on which to build, and identifying a path that allows individuals to build on those strengths can make learning a new technology less daunting, more comfortable, and more sure. A human-factors approach may be especially helpful, too, for instructors to whom students turn for advice; rather than a "one-size-fits-all" answer based on current market trends, advisors can offer more personalized counsel that acknowledges what they recognize about the differences among students' interests and skills. The assumption of this article is that the most successful career writers will do their best work in circumstances that suit their personal styles.

The human-factors issues in this article were chosen based on exchanges with practitioners of the new text technologies described in this article: interviews, comments on bulletin boards and mailing lists, conversations at meetings of professional groups, and so forth. From those exchanges, I was able to identify several relevant areas of preference among writers - forms, industries, techniques, roles, and purposes for writing. I was also able to identify how those same areas correlated to differences among three types of technologies that are current and in high demand: structured on-line documentation markups, help screens and interactive tutorials, and multimedia presentations.

The questionnaire provided here uses specific examples to represent broad tendencies in each of the preference areas. The rating method ranks preferences proportionally, to reveal shadings of opinion. So the results, while not scientific, can provide a framework for self-assessment. Finally, the guide to technologies maps individual preferences by technology categories.

Several trials of this human-factors method, with groups of professionals and with students, have been helpful to respondents; they recognize themselves in their self-assessment profiles that result from the survey and recognize a connection with the technologies that map to those profiles. They can then take next steps to explore and train in new technologies, feeling comfortable about investing in professional development paths that are particularly suited to them.

Using the Method

Instructions are required because the questionnaire (see Figure 1) is not a "forced-choice" quiz but a vehicle for customized responses. These instructions can apply to you, as a workplace writer or consultant, or to your students, who can conduct and discuss the questionnaire and technology guide in a class workshop. …