What Kind of Teamwork Improves Usability?
by Kirstie Edwards
Sheffield Hallam University, UK
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?
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
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
All email content and participant details will be coded for confidentiality
in the analysis. Full reports of the analyses will be provided to participants.