How the University talks about technology – a new UX project to investigate technical language
When talking about technology, achieving understanding without confusion can be difficult, but communicating about technical concepts and processes is crucial for the success of our services. To achieve our aim of a more unified and coherent approach to technical communication across the University, the UX service has begun a new project to map the use of technical language within the Information Services Group (ISG).
Motivation for the technical language project
The shift to remote and hybrid working placed greater reliance on technology. Increased use of online communication highlighted the importance of communicating clearly and accurately about technological concepts, issues and mechanisms.
Within ISG, diverse terms are used to describe our systems, processes and services. As technology continues to evolve, different teams write about technological processes in different ways, using varied approaches and conventions to impart technical information. This disparity runs the risk of causing confusion in staff and students consuming the information, who need to gain an overall understanding to be able to adopt and engage with technology for their work and study.
The UX service has a role in developing materials to help University staff produce digital content to meet audiences’ needs – such as the Editorial Style Guide. The launch of the new University Design System has presented an opportunity to build on existing tools and guidance and to include materials to support technical language use and therefore encourage a more uniform approach to technical communications. These materials would be developed and evolved using UX and content expertise, to meet the needs of all members of the University community who produce technical content.
Read more about the Design System in a related blog post by Sonia Virdi: The Design System’s 0.1 beta version has launched
Lessons learned from Multifactor Authentication pilot (2020-21)
My involvement in a pilot for the roll-out of multifactor authentication (MFA) – a two-step technical security process – was a driver prompting the initiation of the technical language project. Preparing web pages for staff and students who were considering taking part in the MFA pilot highlighted the problem this project aims to address. The webpages needed to clearly explain the technical implications of joining the pilot, the technical procedures to follow, and provide self-service guidance in case of problems encountered. It was difficult to know which term to use for what, as there were many names for the same thing, and it was uncertain which acronyms and terms would be recognisable and understandable. Multiple drafts of the pages were prepared and feedback indicated the information was not clear to staff and students and was being misunderstood.
I reasoned that other areas of ISG may be experiencing the same difficulties trying to create easily-understandable webpages of technical content, and that there may be value in pursuing a UX-and-content-design-led solution to this problem.
Applying UX and content design to technical communications
Technical writing is a long-established profession, and it may be reasonable to assume that the task of communicating technical information should fall to technical writers – the subject matter experts in the field. In reality, however, everyone is a technical communicator of some kind. We’ve all had to describe a technical problem, explain how to use a technical device to someone, make sense of a technical error message. Technical terms are no longer only in the realms of computer experts – the need for greater fluency in technical language is becoming more and more pronounced.
From a content design perspective, there are some seemingly obvious rules to stick to when communicating about technology, such as avoiding jargon and using plain language, but something that is plain to one person may be jargon to someone else and vice versa. Added to the complexity is that technical terms don’t stay the same, and the meaning of some terms change depending on context. To ensure technical communications succeed, they need to be adapted in accordance with the audience – taking into account their context and circumstances and their expectations and perceptions. This is where UX and content design expertise and techniques can assist.
Content design is giving the audience the content they need, at the time they need it and in a way they expect – Sarah Winters, Content Design London
Project scope and expected outputs
Mapping technical language is the first step, with the overarching aim of the project being: To understand how UX and content design can be best applied to develop materials to support technical communications at the University. Outputs from this project are intended to complement and augment existing tools and guidance developed by the UX team. The materials will support staff tasked with writing about technical processes and concepts, and therefore will be designed to align with existing staff workflows and needs. The precise resources will be defined following research, however, may include the following:
- Collections of alternate terms, glossaries and vocabularies
- Good practice examples
- Indices and finding aids for available resources
- Toolkits to support workflows
- ‘Do’s’ and ‘don’ts guidance.
Application of the materials developed will be a longer-term ongoing process.
Aims and remit of the project internship
The focus of the internship to map current technical language use and understand current approaches to technical communication aligns with the first stage of the UX and Design process developed as part of the Web Publishing Platform project – to understand ‘the current state’.
Read more about the development of this design process in the related blog post: Defining the UXD process to support a user-centred Web Publishing Platform
Specifically, areas of work included in the internship are as follows:
- Start mapping use of technical language across ISG
- Identify technical process and concepts of particular importance to the University – i.e. those which are a priority for staff and students to understand, and those which present difficulties to staff and students
- Learn about the difficulties staff and students have understanding technical writing
- Understand current practices and approaches of technical communication adopted by ISG staff (for example: service owners, training staff) and the wider sector
- Research approaches to technical communication in other organisations and sectors
- Identify ways we can support staff tasked with technical communication to achieve a more unified approach
Starting the project – what we’ve done so far and what we have learned
We successfully appointed Amar Prajapati as our Technical Language Mapping Intern in May 2022, who began by mapping acronyms on the ISG website, identifying synonyms of technical terms and gathering information about sources of technical communications at the University.
Amar also identified guides and documentation used by other organisations to write about technical concepts and to make it more understandable. These included:
- Microsoft Style Guide
- Google Developer Documentation Style Guide
- A glossary of computer terminology (Age UK)
From the beginning, we recognised the importance of consulting and collaborating with staff within ISG as well as in the University Colleges, Schools and Deaneries. We contacted colleagues from teams including Digital Skills and Training, User Services Division, ITIL team, Student Systems and IS Relationship Management, as well as reaching out to the Heads of College IT. We have been pleased with the positive reception to the project, with many teams giving up their time to talk us through their processes and approaches to technical communication as well as their related concerns and issues.
What’s next – re-recruiting and re-establishing remit
With our intern finishing to take up a full-time role, we have the chance to reflect on progress so far and to reaffirm the direction and aims of the project before re-recruiting. We’re continuing to make connections and learn from colleagues, working closely with the ISG Standards Group to report on progress. When we have a new intern in post, we will begin planning research with students and staff to understand the difficulties they experience understanding technical language to help us think about how we can improve things.
If you’re interested in learning more about this project or becoming involved, please get in touch – email@example.com