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Tech-Mediated Communication

Rensselaer’s Department of Language, Literature, and Communication (LL&C) was recently awarded a $138,000 grant by the Society of Technical Communication (STC). The funding will support the development of standards for analyzing, designing, and testing the usability of tech-mediated communication — ranging from graphics, to Web sites and Web gallery interfaces, to wikis and distance education environments.

Called “post-documents,” the electronic interfaces have become increasingly visible as we move toward a paperless society, relying less heavily on traditional, physical documents for informative and educational purposes.

In prior planning work supported by the STC, the researchers explored a variety of exemplary post-documents and developed an overarching framework for what made them usable. Additionally, the team concluded that post-documents engage users in different ways than traditional documents — they are more interactive and allow users more control, they often incorporate some aspects of digital storytelling, and they rely less heavily on highly polished designs. This finding rendered the conventional metrics of document usability (efficiency, accuracy, and satisfaction) inadequate for measuring how well a post-document can be used.

A new usability measurement technique suitable for post-documents will be constructed by the Rensselaer research team to support technical communicators as they transition to an increasingly interactive world. Led by department head Cheryl Geisler, the group includes six LL&C faculty members and up to six graduate students.

Currently the team is working to identify what factors make post-documents usable. Following their findings they’ll produce and test a “Post-Document Toolkit,” made up of a set of broad characteristics that make electronic content usable, and an associated set of metrics for measuring post-document usability. The toolkit, expected to be completed by 2009, will be made an available resource to STC practitioners.

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