Incorporating International Collaboration and Usability Evaluation Into a Technical Communication Course

Incorporating International Collaboration and Usability Evaluation Into a Technical Communication Course

Suvi Isohella (University of Vaasa, Finland)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-4154-7.ch014


This chapter describes how globalization and rapid technological change are transforming technical communication both in academia and the corporate world. Products and technologies are used by a variety of user groups, and usability has become an important requirement. The transnational pedagogical collaboration, the Trans-Atlantic and Pacific Project, has taken up the gauntlet by providing students with a simulated professional environment and sharing insights into collaborative writing, translation, and usability evaluation. By reflecting on previous studies and the author´s experiences, this article explores issues relevant to teachers when incorporating international collaboration and usability evaluation into a technical communication course. It describes international student collaboration regarding usability practices and discusses the benefits and challenges of usability evaluation as part of international collaboration. It concludes by suggesting guidelines for teachers to facilitate international collaboration and usability evaluation in higher education setting.
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The importance of usability in document development has been recognized since the 1970s (Wright, 1979), and its importance grows as more and more people come to rely on technical documents in today´s self-service society. The international ISO 9241-11 standard provides guidance on usability and defines it as a measure of the extent to which a given product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use. For example, in an e-commerce checkout process, the process of going from the shopping cart to completing the order should be effective, efficient and satisfactory for the user. Nielsen (1993, p. 26) suggests that usability has five attributes: learnability, efficiency, memorability, errors, and satisfaction. Thus, it is a quality, but furthermore, the term usability can refer to a process (i.e. a methodology for creating products), techniques (i.e. specific methods or activities, such as contextual observation and usability testing) or a philosophy (i.e. a belief in designing to meet user needs) (Quesenbery 2003, p. 83).

Usability evaluation described in this chapter is part of the Trans-Atlantic & Pacific Project (TAPP) which has developed into a higher educational network of bilateral writing-translation projects (since 2000), bilateral translation-editing projects (since 2001), and multilateral projects (since 2010). Usability evaluation is part of multilateral writing-translation projects that involve co-authoring in Spain and the U.S., user-testing in English in Finland and in the U.S., and translation to French, Italian, and/or Dutch (Maylath, Vandepitte, et al., 2013; Maylath, King, & Arnò Maciá, 2013). The collaborative forms of learning in TAPP have been discussed in previous publications (see, for example, Vandepitte et al., 2015), and therefore the framework of this chapter is curriculum centered.

This chapter draws from Chongʼs (2012) notion that:

[T]he need for usability has developed in parallel to, but not always connected to, the need for international technical communication (ITC). As our workplaces become more globalized, it is imperative for technical communication programs to be infused with opportunities to understand, practice, and implement international communication.

The idea of incorporating international communication in technical communication programs is not new. Thrush, for example, suggested this in 1993 (see also Sadri & Flammia, 2003, p. 86). Typically, international technical communication is related to “cultural differences inherent in communicating with audiences other than […] native English-speaking communities” (Bokor, 2011 p. 136). Hoft (1995) defines international technical communication as “the development of technical information that can be understood by a linguistically, culturally, and technologically diverse audience.” (p. 650). The concept of audience is central in international technical communication as in technical communication, although in international technical communication the awareness of cultural and linguistic diversity is emphasized. Moreover, in this chapter international technical communication is understood to also encompass international collaboration.

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