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Bringin' It Home from the STC Annual Conference
2005, Q2 (July 05, 2007)
by Meredith Blackwelder, Past President, Carolina Chapter

From May 8-11, 2005, I attended STC’s 52nd Annual Conference in Seattle, WA. I write this article for those who were not able to attend, as well as those who attended and are interested in reading a different perspective on sessions they attended.

Rather than give small descriptions of every session I attended, I chose four of the most enlightening sessions to fill you in on. The conference offered great sessions, forward-thinking speakers, and well-versed researchers. I learned a lot about the direction that technical communication is headed, what hot trends are in the field, and ideas about how the businesses we’re involved in will evolve in the near future.

Fitting Users in the Design Process

Patrick Whitney
Patrick Whitney, the director of the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, addressed conference attendees in the opening session.
The following are Whitney’s most important points:
  1. Users are in more control of our design processes now because
    • Companies are capable of flexible production
    • Users have more buying options — more competition gives users more choices
    • Users have global access to products — users can get products no matter where they’re made
  2. The core competency of design used to be fitting branding into the market, using good typefaces, etc. Now it’s evolved to:
    • Understanding how users use products
    • Finding patterns of use
    • Linking user value to economic value
    • Creating prototypes to help development
  3. As our knowledge of user-friendly product design increases, lifestyles become more routine and more predictable. We should use this to our advantage when designing products.
  4. Design should come from watching what people do, not listening to what they say they want.

Photography is a Teaching Tool

Felice Frankel
Felice Frankel, a science photographer and research scientist in the School of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spoke about the type of technical communication that communicates science to a lay audience via photographs. She photographs highly magnified images — spores of yeast, drops of oil, molecules of ice. Her photographs help scientists see ideas in new ways.

They reveal the value of images working in conjunction with text, as her best images have been published in many scientific journals as accompaniment to scientific articles.

This session, titled “Envisioning Science,” was relevant to me because the statistical software I document helps users see ideas in new ways and demonstrates the real value of combining images with text (numbers). Felice’s artwork accomplishes the same goals — by using art rather than software.

She showed us that through images, science is accessible to a lay audience. She says that pictures are a different vocabulary and they are a visual representation of what we see but might not really see.

Preparing for Future Success

William Gribbons, an associate professor at Bentley College, gave this presentation on monitoring the job market for skills that are in demand today and those that are likely to be in demand in the future.

William Gribbons
His performance as an associate professor is measured on the starting salaries of students graduating from the business school at Bentley. His students’ starting salaries average 75k. His goal is to have them at 90–110k.

In his presentation, “The Road Ahead,” Gribbons spoke about rapid developments in the philosophies of businesses in the US. He said that the greatest challenge faced by most companies today is product differentiation in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Old rules and old strategies just don’t seem to be working any more. In some market segments, companies are developing usable products, but they have no leg up because the competition is nipping on their heels and they too are usable. So what’s next? He says that user-centered design, which influences the business rather than the product, is the next hot thing. In fact, EMC’s CEO is currently emphasizing what he calls “the total user experience” and has started using a user-centered business approach.

Gribbons says that contributing to a system’s functionality is good, but not enough. What is best is focused functionality married with usability and a grasp on the user’s experience. He says it’ll be a challenge to get customers to buy the next version if they don’t care about the new features that have been added. But if it’s an improvement to the usability of existing features, they will be more compelled to upgrade. Gribbons suggests:
  • Embedding a support system
  • Facilitating the transfer of learning. These first two are best illustrated in the gaming industry. People (including “kids”) who play computer and video games learn as they go. They don’t read the manual before playing a game. So think about the gaming industry’s main customer: the teenager to young adult. They have learned how to use systems by figuring it out and using clues embedded in the system. So 22 year olds who are coming into the marketplace with these new ways of approaching technology are going to soon be your customers.
  • Designing to minimize user errors
  • Reducing the user workload
  • Driving development through market segmentation. By this, he means to understand how your market can be sliced up and how you can design for those different slices. An example he gave is the differences you see in someone who is 18 and in college and someone who’s 65 years old. They might all be using your product yet they come from such different backgrounds and experiences with products that designing one product that suits both of them is impossible. Also, he reminds us to think about how someone might be using our product in 5 years — the mental models and skills they will bring—compared to those who started using it 5 years ago.

Meredith Blackwelder, Anjela Dukes, Robert Perry, Pam Harris, and Melanie Drake enjoy dinner at the conference.
Meredith Blackwelder, Anjela Dukes, Robert Perry, Pam Harris, and Melanie Drake enjoy dinner at the conference.

The conference also provided opportunities to network with others in our region.

Members of Region 2 gathered for breakfast one morning.
Members of Region 2 gathered for breakfast one morning.

Meredith Blackwelder is newsletter editor and past president and can be reached at newsletter at stc-carolina dot org. End of article.

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