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Field study on the use of technical information

One of the early activities carried out in the project was to start a field study. The first part, finished in mid October, aimed at making a survey of existing field studies conducted into how organizations and individuals inside organizations use technical information, such as manuals, but also in general how knowledge is produced, documented and used within professional contexts. One of the goals was, of course, to get a grip of state-of-the-art studies on the use of technical information, as well as to point to interesting design openings.The field study will be a continuous activity within the Substrate project; in time, the initial survey will be complemented with empirical work together with one of Sigma Kudos’ clients, and there will be increasing alignment with ongoing concept development. 

The survey includes more general aspects of organizational learning since it seems like problem-solving and learning through the use of technical documentation is increasingly being acknowledged as more than individual use at single moments. A specific emphasis is on the concept of situated knowledge, and on social and narrative dimensions of professional use of technical documentation. Some of the insights point to design openings in the form of blending of information types, using documentation as a collaborative effort, the need for coupling between users, writers and manufacturers, the technical communicator as an agent of change, social dimensions and narrative dimensions. 

The survey shows that the field of technical communication, and how professionals use technical documentation, is widening its scope. There is a move from a view where the documentation is seen as rather “self-contained”, providing the support to accomplish a task. It is increasingly recognized that learning from technical information takes place not only in the single moment of use, but also in a larger temporal span. This larger learning context includes a blurring between individual use of instructions and collaborative social and informal “talk” between professionals. 

It is a plausible conclusion that Sigma Kudos can strengthen their position as information provider by looking further into how these dimensions can be exploited as to further augment DocFactory. 

Some observations from the survey deserve particular mention:

The blending of information types. Users are becoming more and more skilled in using heterogeneous information formats. It is common (and expected) to use information outside of the traditional documentation.  From the studies reviewed it becomes obvious that visual material is highly valued in many situations, not the least in trying to couple verbal accounts to what is actually in front of you.  Schematics seem to be frequently used, but in complement one could well see that rich media, such as video or sound can be a rich resource. While some of it might be pre-produced as part of the documentation process, one could also well imagine that “lightweight” production can take place on the fly, for example using mobile phones, when for example a technician solves a problem he knows to be rather uncommon. The other way around, recordings could be made as part of a request to others, where a verbal account might be hard to articulate. 

Using documentation as a collaborative effort. The collaborative dimension of using technical documentation is becoming more acknowledged.  There are several ways to tackle this perspective. Some strong candidates include social bookmarking or ranking. Other possible collaborative efforts worth looking into might be wikis, blogging or mechanisms such as collaborative searching, where other expert searches are made visible, or where a simple notification of whom have searched for the same information may be valuable.

The need for coupling between users, writers and manufacturers. Participatory processes are called upon in most of the studies looked into. In many cases they are needed if innovative approaches are designed. We must also remember that the contextual conditions in specific cases might provide specific issues to address that are hard to understand “from the outside.”  This might also point to the need of instantiating experiments in joint efforts together with a client.

 Technical communicator as a change agent. It seems likely that most new interfaces and mechanisms for using technical documentation will be less than effective unless the existing methods of use are challenged as well. Sigma Kudos should reflect upon whether they would like to take a pro-active part in widened organizational learning attempts. In some of the studied cases success of the project was not the proposed concept as such, but rather the way the project engaged in instantiating processes where the concept was pragmatically tried out, thus instantiating new learning processes in the organization at hand. 

Social dimensions. Already we can see how social dimensions are tried out at organizational levels, as being part of problem-solving and learning. This overlaps very much with the criteria of collaborative efforts, and similar aspects could be explored (social annotations, joint searches, blogging etc). The main difference is perhaps that in many cases the informality of social talk is highly valued. Providing mechanisms for informal talk is something different than prompting for collaborative participation. 

Narrative dimensions. The blurring of formal articulations and informal narrative “talk” seems like a strong resource in problem-solving and learning as a complement to technical documentation.  In many cases the informal narratives could be “hard facts” for a person in need of someone else’s knowledge. Just as in the case of social dimensions, it could be a mistake to prompt for articulate descriptions. Rather it could perhaps be a case of providing a space for telling stories that could be of different character, ranging from “war stories” to explicitly articulated descriptions of fixes. Stories can take on different formats, and do not necessarily have to be understood as verbal accounts. Storytelling can also be done in videos, drawings, etc. It would be interesting to see examples which are not separate from the documentation (one manual and a separate forum), but to see it as part of the documentation, perhaps as a layer, view or facet.