Friday, June 09, 2006

Casting a really wide (broadband) net

This year in Las Vegas, Beth Agnew, technical communication instructor at Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology in Toronto, Canada, made the case for including podcasts and vidcasts in technical documentation. I asked her to share her views on multimedia content and the technical communication profession.

Thanks, Beth, for taking time to share your views.

Q: You're interested in producing and editing videos and podcasts, software demonstrations and other online instructional materials. Just how popular is multimedia documentation?

A: We’re not seeing widespread use just yet. I think that is the legacy of the inability of the web to deliver good quality multimedia prior to recent years. But now that most people have fast broadband connections and plenty of disk space for storage, there will be more multimedia generated. New tools such as RSS feeds, aggregators, .mp3 players and ipod video give users more options for viewing multimedia. Once you have the distribution method (the web) and the installed based (a multimedia player-equipped audience) the content producers can start to churn out material. People like multimedia. We’re visual beings accustomed to receiving information through multiple channels. It only makes sense that we want to have material delivered via multimedia.

Q: But what about professional production techniques? Rhetorical principles? Are tech comm professionals currently up to the challenge?

A: We missed the boat when the web was in its infancy--instead of embracing this new technology and taking a pre-eminent position in creating content for the web, the web developers and graphic designers rushed to the forefront to create beautiful, functional web sites that users found frustrating. Even now, hiring a technical communicator to manage your website project is not the first thing most companies think of--but it should be. The same thing could happen with multimedia. The techies are getting out there because they are developing the technology; the musicians and videographers are out there because they’re familiar with the tools of the trade. But delivering information and instruction via multimedia takes more than cool sounds and pretty video. It takes carefully crafted content. The rhetorical principles we use for written documentation still hold true for podcasts and online video. There has to be some organizational strategy applied, the information has to be chunked and managed, and the user’s needs have to be considered. These principles are not top of mind for the audio and video producers who are moving their work to the web. Tech comm professionals need to grab hold of this technology, learn it, adjust it to meet our needs as communicators and trainers, and drive the industry toward usable multimedia.

Q: Are technical communication departments at universities and colleges hiring multimedia specialists to address this growing demand?

A: Not yet. Our universities and colleges are still not entirely up to speed with the latest technology. While there are pockets of technology-enhanced learning, most institutions are lagging behind the student population as far as technical knowledge. They’ve got a preponderance of baby-boomers as instructors, teaching students who grew up with the web. That creates a huge generation gap. To their credit, however, learning organizations recognize the importance of technology and are moving forward to try to catch up. The creation of campus e-learning centers and hiring experienced multimedia specialists will help address the needs of students who want course materials delivered in audio and video channels.

Q: You discuss the influence of “reality TV” on instructional video. What do you think about the trend toward “informal” instruction and the use of humor to teach online? For example, I’m thinking of sites like Photoshop TV. Is this the future of technical communication?

A: There will always be a place for “formal” technical communication, just as there is still a place for books. As technical communicators, we are always acutely aware of our audience and the needs of our users to acquire the information we have to give them. Those needs now include informal, in the street, quick uptake, short burst information delivery. Who has time to deal with a 300-page manual any more? The future of technical communication is delivery of information to our audience in the most effective way. That has always been what we’re about. That principle won’t change. We are successful when we make a connection with our audience. One or two experts, showing hands-on instruction, and speaking to the audience in a casual way creates rapport, and a very solid connection with the user. You like these people. They are credible, they are sincere, you believe them, and you become a loyal user. They entertain you, you learn something, and you feel better for having spent your precious time in that way. That is definitely the future of technical communication.

Q: Any favorite sites you’d like to share?

A: I’m a fan of Kitchen Arts, a great way to show how to use kitchen gadgets you might want to buy. This is a super example of merging marketing with information. Another good site is of course TechSmith as I mentioned in my presentation. They use their own technology to show you how to do a good multimedia presentation. Finally, another website that is fun is - audio and video podcasts by hardcore DIY-ers who have taken how-to information out of the cubicle and the studio and into the backyard and living room. The more accessible we make technical communication, the more it will help our users.

Thanks for taking time to talk with us, Beth. Be sure to check back for comments on this topic.

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