UX design and UX writing at the seventh European Academic Colloquium
Yvonne Cleary, Sissi Closs, Birgitta Meex, Daniela Straub
The 7th European Academic Colloquium (EAC) took place on Friday, June 11, 2021. It was held online for the first time – much to the delight of over 100 international delegates from universities and industry, from more than 20 countries worldwide. Attendees greatly appreciated being able to participate in the topical presentations and lively exchange at the meetup without having to travel. They were welcomed by the President of tekom Europe, Dr. Tiziana Sicilia, and members of the EAC Board, who also moderated the day: Dr. Yvonne Cleary, Prof. Sissi Closs, Dr. Joyce Karreman, Prof. Birgitta Meex, and Prof. Michael Meng.
User experience (UX) design and UX writing were central themes of this year's EAC. UX writers craft clear and concise interface text for products and digital user experiences. Their task is to provide meaningful conversations between the user and the product. UX writing and technical communication are different job profiles – and educational paths. But they have several tasks in common, as already hinted at in the definition.
Birgitta Meex and Hans-Jörg Elsen showed that language choices are essential in interface texts: finding the right word is the task. The goal is to guide users and make sure that they have access to functions and to information. Therefore, UX designers and information developers should keep in mind that design is about solving user problems and that words are critical to the design process. Language must adapt to user needs. These approaches are known as "Conversational User Interface" and "Human Centered Design". The user interface should serve as a conversation between the user and the product. The concept of product usability is transformed to communicative usability. And language choices – words, tone, and voice – can influence usability. Therefore, as with UX writing, understanding and empathizing with the target audience is essential.
Benjamin Mayer addressed the connection between technical communication and UX writing by systematically investigating whether technical writers can be tasked with UX writing, and what UX writing means for technical communication. Mayer observed that it is in the use of language that there are differences between UX writing and technical writing. In his view, the fundamental difference between the two approaches to content development lies in the function of the text in question. UX writing is characterized in many cases by informal and colloquial language, whereas language used in technical documentation tends to be more formal and regulated. Calls to action and user motivation play a large role in the context of UX writing. UX writing also often deviates from the minimalism prescribed in DIN EN 82079-1 for technical documentation. UX writing gives the author more flexibility, whereas technical writers are usually bound by rules and standards. What UX writing and technical communication have in common is that they address the needs of the target group but, in UX, emotional appeal plays a more important role.
Overlap between the skills of UX writers and technical writer
As the day progressed, it became clear that there is significant overlap between the skills of UX writers and technical writers. And in practice, UX writing has already become prominent, especially in the software field. A meetup in the early afternoon provided further scope for this discussion. Sissi Closs moderated the meetup, and engaged the audience expertly, with provocative questions and quick polls. During the meetup, delegates explored questions such as whether more emphasis should be placed on UX in the training of future technical writers. Participants from both industry and academia came to the conclusion that UX writing should be part of the training of technical writers. And the meetup participants agreed with Benjamin Mayer’s conclusion: "In summary, technical writers are capable of UX writing." For technical writing, the concept of UX writing, with its stronger focus on the target audience, can be beneficial and a step toward more attractive, user-friendly technical communication.
Focusing on agentive content, Gustav Verhulsdonck zoomed in on how Artificial Intelligence (AI) is changing User Experience (UX) and Technical Communication (TC). Verhulsdonck argued that AI creates new models for delivering and developing content. AI-driven services such as chatbots and digital assistants impact TC in that they give rise to and represent different interaction models and different ways of communicating with users. As a result of digitalization, systems are now expected to remember our preferences, to make inferences and predict, to interact with and even act for us. Following Russell and Norvig (2009), Verhulsdonck explained that AI is about creating intelligent artificial agents that can automate processes and act for human agents. Verhulsdonck sees agentive content in smart user contexts as a new paradigm for TC: content needs to be more interactive, more conversational and also agentive. Verhulsdonck distinguished four agent content types in relation to the autonomy of the user ranging from reactive (e.g. alerts) and assistive (smart thermometers) types to semi-agentive (e.g. smart watches) and fully agentive (e.g. self-driving vehicles) types, all of which impact TC. To create agentive content in smart contexts, five “ingredients” are used: (1) microcontent (i.e. small snippets of information), (2) natural language processing and machine learning (for content scripting) and (3) conversational design allowing for smooth interaction between an artificial agent (4) and a human agent (5). Verhulsdonck concluded by saying that future TC models are expected, such as the broadcast push model and handoffs from AI to human being.
Discussing trends and developments in technical communication education
As well as exploring UX design and writing, the colloquium also included space for discussion of trends and developments in technical communication education. The impact of the pandemic on teaching was, of course, a theme in presentations this year. Jenni Virtaluoto explained how she had integrated an ambitious company-based minimalism project into a technical communication module. The module was delivered online for the first time because of the pandemic. Students were initially intimidated by the scale of the challenge, but Virtaluoto explained how they were guided through the process, and she shared excerpts from their journals and from surveys that illustrated how much students learned from the experience. The discussion of teaching during the pandemic resonated with delegates.
Christiane Zehrer shared a compelling insight into guiding students through very complex documentation tasks, and gradually removing “scaffolds.” This presentation incorporated the useful concept of “line of visibility” to differentiate technical communication products that are widely available, from less tangible processes of content development. The project that Zehrer described aimed to help students to understand these less tangible processes, while using content development software.
Both these talks emphasized how good instruction can overcome delivery challenges and result in teaching and learning experiences that are transformative for students and teachers.
Keynote and conclusion
The colloquium concluded with an exceptional keynote address from Kirk St.Amant. In his talk, “Dynamics of Design in Digital Domains: Approaches to Addressing the User Experience in Digital Contexts,” St.Amant emphasized the importance of technical writers being aware of how cognitive processes work. Usable and effective design of features, functions, content and navigation depends on understanding how users process information. Knowledge of cognitive science, therefore, helps technical writers to address the usability expectations of their audiences.
Based on the presentations at this year’s European Academic Colloquium, we can conclude that UX methods are helpful for technical communication, and technical communication is and remains an interdisciplinary field. An eclectic approach that incorporates techniques and methods from different disciplines with the goal of providing the user with the highest possible benefits is sensible.
The International University Network in Technical Communication (IUNTC) will continue these and other discussions started during the European Academic Colloquium. Representatives from industry and academia are cordially invited to participate in this free initiative organized by the tekom Europe advisory board for professional development and training.