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Social Innovation: Designing Humane Technical Communication

Overview: Focusing on the important role technical communicators play in user research, this chapter highlights the connections between design thinking and social advocacy, which is now infamously framed as the interdisciplinary' effort of social innovation. This chapter ties this effort with the work of technical communication and contends that technical communicators should be leaders in human-centered problem solving. Through case examples and interviews with industry experts, this chapter presents scholarly as well as industry perspectives on social innovation by technical communicators. These examples demonstrate the immense opportunities for technical communication, as a discipline, to assume leadership in social innovation initiatives and to do so by bridging classrooms and industries.

Technical Communication as Changemaking

Among the key lessons I learned as a copywriter in my pregraduate school years is the role of strategic communication in changemaking. Under the mentorship of an ever-so-patient account director and a fiercely artistic creative director (Terence and Wong!) at a boutique ad agency, it was instilled in me that the purpose of advertising goes beyond calling attention to a product or service; it is a catalyst for culture and change. We serve our clientele by helping them make smart yet ethical decisions, earn trust, and create positive public engagement. As a writer, my work included collaborating with the creative team—graphic designers, photographers, videographers, web developers, and editors—to cultivate actions through meaningful messages. When executed strategically by clear, clever, and compelling rhetoric, I have witnessed the way good ideas bring on great results.

Shifting into the world of technical communication, I find many parallels between technical and marketing writing, in particular the common goal of changemaking. In their award-winning book, Key Theoretical Frameworks: Teaching Technical Communication in the Twenty-First Century, editors Angela M. Haas and Michelle F. Eble (2008) posited that modern technical communication pedagogies and practices require “social justice frameworks” that “explicitly seek to redistribute and reassemble—or otherwise redress—power imbalances that systematically and systemically disenfranchise some stakeholders while privileging others” (p. 4). Haas and Eble, along with the contributors to the collection, offered a myriad of perspectives into the ways technical communication practitioners and teachers can affect social change by paying attention to the cultural imperatives of their work and pedagogy today. Specifically, Haas and Eble forwarded a set of foundational approaches to social justice through technical communication that’s worth quoting in full:

  • • All technical communication has the potential to be global technical communication. Even if one works in/for a local organization, the technical communication of those outside the organization could shape the technical communication that transpires within, not to mention that stakeholders and/or users of that technical communication may come from diverse global locations.
  • • Social justice is both a local and global necessity. This means that contrary to rhetorics of national exceptionalism, the United States, “first-world,” and Western countries could also benefit from social justice approaches to technical communication.
  • • International and intercultural communication happens outside of non- Western and non-US contexts (and without Western and “first-world” interlocutors). Moreover, these cases, their stakeholders, their technical communication—thus, cultural and rhetorical—work, and the power dynamics therein are worthy of our study.
  • • International technical communication happens within the United States. There are over five hundred sovereign indigenous nations independent from the United States but are located within United States national borders. And this international technical communication can and does happen independent from United States and other “first-world” involvement.
  • • International and domestic technical communication is all a matter of rhetorical perspective. A case study of Chinese technical communication, for example, is not international technical communication for Chinese technical communicators.
  • • Intercultural technical communication happens within and across national borders given ethnic and other cultural diversity'.
  • • Although social justice begins at home, it’s important to understand the relationships between local and global injustices. Certainly' we should consider our agency as technical communicators in light of the social injustices within our own communities rather than positioning ourselves as rhetorical missionaries for Others. But we should also study the patterns and trends across and between local and global stories of injustice so that we may better identify, analyze, and redress the ideologies, institutions, stakeholders, and rhetorics that sponsor them—and to more effectively form intercultural technical communication teams to do so.
  • • Social justice includes justice for the environment, as injustices against any living species (not just humans and non-human animals) should impact the social. Moreover, many non-Western epistemologies understand non-human actors as social beings.
  • • Social justice benefits everyone. Working to achieve or restore equity for one population or community does not require anyone with access to those rights to relinquish them—quite the opposite actually. For technical communication, specifically, equity means fair and just access to and representation in scientific and technical communication for all stakeholders.
  • (Haas &Eble, 2018, pp. 10-11)

Taking heed from Haas and Eble’s disposition, Rebecca Walton, Kristin Moore, and Natasha Jones (2019) in their equally influential book—Technical Communication after the Social Justice Turn—positioned technical communicators as change- makers who should consider the core of their work as withstanding unjust issues and resisting oppressive practices. Similar to my experience in advertising, good communication—whether technical or creative—should promote actions toward a good cause. But in order to arrive at such an ideal, technical communicators need a combination of mindset and skillset that allows them to address the problems they encounter in the ongoing process of cultivating change.

Noted in the previous chapters, I subscribe to a problem-solving characterization for technical communication as popularized by Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart Selber (2013). Technical communicators in each of their respective industries—medical, legal, computer engineering, etc.—are solvers of sociotech- nical problems. Technical tasks are staple work in the profession. Many novice professionals entering this industry expect to work on different aspects of content creation and delivery. Rather, the social part of technical communication is arguably more intricate than its technical counterpart. Social problems are complex, political, culturally situated, and incomplete; they are what Rittel and Webber (1973) called “wicked problems,” or problems without objective definitions nor optimal solutions. Due to the perplexing conditions of our global society and the increasingly convoluted nature of technical communication practices (intertwined with adjacent professions) in the face of evolving technologies, technical communicators are challenged with unprecedented problems that require not-yet-available solutions. In other words, technical communicators must innovate solutions. To do so, we need to “look outside the tech comm bubble,” as Amazon technical writer and blogger extraordinaire Tom Johnson1 (2015) put it. We should consult with other fields, even those that may seem too remote from our immediate interests or practices. Alas, as reality shows us, technical communication work should ahvays-already be interdisciplinary.

During the development of this book, our world was struck with two major crises—a worldwide health pandemic brought about by COVID-19 and a global uprising stirred by systemic racism. The public role of technical communicators has since become more prominent than ever. We are called to take on innovative approaches to affect change. And this changemaking required empathy, creativity, and strategy. For example, during the pandemic, technical communicators across the world have created different user-friendly data visualizations and infographics to educate citizens about the development of the deadly virus and steps to ensure personal hygiene and safety. Posters, memes, videos, and other forms of media have been deployed to educate the masses. Strategic communication professor Curtis Newbold (2020), the creative mind behind The Visual Communication Guy website, has produced freely downloadable graphic flowcharts for restaurant owners, schools, and other workplace programs to guide their operations during a time of anxiety. Other technical communicators have occupied social media spaces to perform similar educational efforts through creative and rhetorical methods.

Meanwhile, as the health pandemic called for technical expertise, the strife for racial justice demanded attention by technical communicators to the social dimensions of their crafts. Technical communicators—including UX researchers, content strategists, instructional designers, etc.—can participate meaningfully in social advocacy through their professional practices. Salesforce senior design researcher Vivianne Castillo has openly called UX practitioners to speak out about social problems such as “privilege, racism, homophobia, white supremacy, xenophobia, etc.” (quoted from tweet in Figure 3.1) because UX relies on

A tweet by Vivianne Castillo on June 23, 2019 asking UX professionals to talk about privilege, racism, homophobia, white supremacy, xenophobia, etc

FIGURE 3.1 A tweet by Vivianne Castillo on June 23, 2019 asking UX professionals to talk about privilege, racism, homophobia, white supremacy, xenophobia, etc.

Source: Used with permission human-centered values. These values should be translated into actions through technical communication activities and advocacy. Indeed, technical communicators need to do more in paying attention to users as marginalized people. There are tools to do this work, and this chapter aims to demonstrate those tools from the design thinking standpoint.

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