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June 2005 Contents

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What Kind of Teamwork Improves Usability?

by Kirstie Edwards

Sheffield Hallam University, UK

Kirstie.edwards@skynet.be

Networked writing teams and document usability
Professionals are increasingly working in networked teams where electronic media and asynchronous communication play an important role. So how can communication behaviours in these contexts predict usability? Do efficiency, effectiveness and satisfaction in the communication process lead to the same for the resulting documentation?

This is the focus of a study currently underway at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK. We’re designing a tool to extract representations of activities, writing influences and communication behaviour from email communications during networked team writing. Further phases will explore the validity of these findings in interviews with the writers and evaluate the usability of the documents. In this way we can relate the end result to what goes on during the process and how team members behave. By relating communication behaviour to project results, we may even be able to identify performance predictors useful to managing documentation projects.

Sociability maintains the team
Group, communications and writing research suggest that activities fall into two types, those directed at achieving the group goal, and those directed at maintaining the group. Subject matter expertise and writing skills can definitely contribute to successful user documentation in team writing, but what do good interpersonal skills and sociability contribute to the group maintenance dimension? Apparently performance increases with group cohesion and then decreases, which suggests that there’s an optimal balance between sociability levels in the team and dedication to the task. If we’re too friendly, we lose focus on the task. As a scientific and technical writer with 15 years of experience, I’ve worked in teams where I felt that close friendships were beginning to affect concentration (and I’ve even asked to be assigned to another team because of this). I have also worked in teams where the “team spirit” was so formally professional that I was inhibited to contribute in a creative or exploratory way. Combining various subject matter experts on a project isn’t necessarily enough to ensure a good result. A certain mix of interpersonal and communication skills in the group writing context may well go a long way.

Do we need to be good communicators to write?
A recent study from Mexico, which was presented at the III International Conference on Communications and Reality in May, researched what companies are looking for when they advertise for digital journalists. Rather depressingly, this study showed that non communications companies, i.e. those not specifically working with the media, were concerned with finding technological skills in candidates to fill these posts rather than communication competencies. Technical writing is, of course, a different kind of writing to digital journalism, but it’s easy to see a similar trend in advertisements for technical writers, where knowledge of certain tools of the trade are listed in abundance as essential requirements for successful candidates. So what about communication and interpersonal skills?

Writing as communication
Nystrand describes writing as a communicative act between the reader and the writer. Good writers anticipate what their readers expect. Surely the meeting of minds in a technical document, or email or in face to face conversation is based on the same convergence of thought and understanding? Combinations of individuals’ interpersonal and communication skills which form a well balanced interacting group will not only improve the group performance in terms of the process of group writing, but also provide the skill sets, the communication competencies required for good writing. Will these same skills that hold the group together not also lend a writer’s empathy to the audience for good documentation?

Preliminary findings
In the first part of this research, we have studied a networked team writing project to create software user documentation. Using known influences on writing and known communication behaviours, we have operationalized indicators from the emails to search for dependencies. As an example from this part of the research, writers appeared to adjust their communication behaviour according to whether they were emailing to someone above, below, or at an equivalent level to them in the organization. Greeting behaviour in emails was influenced by both the functional role and hierarchical level of the intended recipient, and representations of group cohesiveness varied with how many levels a message was being transmitted through the organizational hierarchy.

Can you help?
This project is currently in the phase of identifying dependencies and needs to test interpretations with qualitative data collection in multiple contexts. Eligibility criteria for writing projects are:

  • three or more collaborators
  • working in English
  • over the Internet or an organization’s Local Area Network
  • in any discipline, commercial, public or academic.

If you think you can help with this research please contact Kirstie.Edwards@skynet.be. Here’s what we’ll need from you:

  • As many email records as possible from the writing project
  • Questionnaire completion by team members after the analysis
  • Access to the final document that you produce so that we can evaluate its usability.

All email content and participant details will be coded for confidentiality in the analysis. Full reports of the analyses will be provided to participants.

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