Exploring the Intersections of UX and Technical Communication

Room 42 is where practitioners and academics meet to share knowledge about breaking research. In this episode, Emma Rose explains the evolving relationship between User Experience and Technical Communication and the skills needed to succeed in both teaching and practice.

Airdate: December 9, 2020

Season 1 Episode 12 | 44 min

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Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:12.390] – Liz Fraley

Good morning everyone, and welcome to Room 42. I’m Liz Fraley from Single-Sourcing Solutions. I’m your moderator. This is Janice Summers, our interviewer, and welcome to Emma Rose. Today’s guest in Room 42.

[00:00:23.700] – Emma Rose


[00:00:25.410] – Liz Fraley

Emma has spent her career crossing the academic and industry divide. She’s an Associate Professor at the University of Washington Tacoma and an Adjunct Associate Professor in Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her research interests include Participatory and Human Centered Design and developing methods to engage communities and marginalized populations in a design process. She is the past chair of ACM SIGDOC, and prior to her career, she spent in academics, she spent a decade working in a user experience consultancy, helping people bring design thinking to practice and product development. And today, she’s here to help us start answering the question, What is the Relationship between User Experience and Technical Communication? Welcome Emma.

[00:01:11.280] – Emma Rose

Thank you so much. I’m happy to be here and I love this format when you’re like, yeah just come, show up, have a conversation, and yeah, I really appreciate the format and excited to talk to you and the folks who are in attendance as well.

[00:01:24.285] – Liz Fraley


[00:01:25.500] – Janice Summers

So how did you, how did you get started in User Experience, like what’s the origin story of your journey?

[00:01:34.080] – Emma Rose


[00:01:34.710] – Janice Summers

I love origin stories though.

[00:01:37.590] – Emma Rose

Okay, it sounds good, I’ll try and give you the mini version because I have been around the field for a while, I feel like there could be an extended version which if we all can be together again in person, maybe I’ll tell you over drinks sometime. But my origin story is, I think, not atypical for folks who are sort of senior in their careers. When it came to UX at this time, when I was sort of coming up and getting my education, there was no UX, there was no User Experience.

[00:02:06.020] – Janice Summers


[00:02:06.570] – Emma Rose

So it was a field that I discovered along the way. So my undergrad was actually in Creative Writing and I ended up teaching myself to code because I wanted to put my like earnest to creative writing out in the world for people to enjoy, and so I taught myself how to code, and I became a technical writer after that, and I was like, oh, maybe technical writing is my thing. And after doing that for about five years, I was webmaster and I decided to go get more training in technical writing, and I went to the what is now known as the Human-Centered Design and Engineering Department, but back then it was the Techcomm Department at the University of Washington. And I got to learn from amazing, amazing people, and it was there with Judy Ramey that I first learned about usability and usability testing. And I just remember a moment in her class where I was like, oh, this is my thing, like, this is what I was meant to do, which, I mean, is pretty remarkable to remember that moment, and also as an academic now, like, I’d love to see when my students have that moment too, where they’re like, wait, this is a thing, I can like talk to people, handle technology, so that really like, it just warms my heart when I see other people have that connection to our field. So from there, after my Masters Degree, I actually went into User Experience and I was a consultant, I worked at a consultancy for a decade and love that work, really introducing lots of government organizations and social impact organizations to the practice of user-centered design with a firm called Anthro-Tech out of Olympia, Washington.

[00:03:46.290] – Emma Rose

And then along the way, I decided I needed more training. I wanted to learn more and go further in my understanding of User Experience, and so I enrolled in the PhD program and it was through that journey and completing that degree that I decided that I wanted to sort of do the academic route. But as you said in the intro, I feel like I’ve always had a foot in both places. I’ve gone back and forth between being an academic, being a practitioner, going back to being an academic, and even now I get to still do some consulting and some working with organizations and community based work that I feel like I get to keep my hands in practice, which is also really invigorating and exciting, especially when you get to work on cool projects with cool people.

[00:04:33.810] – Janice Summers

Right, because then it’s not just theory it’s actual practice.

[00:04:37.250] – Emma Rose

Oh, yeah, definitely. And I think it’s always, you know, good work is always an interplay between those two, right like–

[00:04:44.190] – Janice Summers


[00:04:44.190] – Liz Fraley


[00:04:44.700] – Emma Rose

Between theory and practice and trying things out and seeing what works and seeing how things change in different cultural moments and within different organizations as well.

[00:04:55.300] – Liz Fraley

I love that.

[00:04:55.960] – Janice Summers

You seem to have a real experimentalist approach to life, like seeking that journey, that quest, like it’s a quest and it’s a discovery.

[00:05:06.820] – Emma Rose

Yeah, I know, and when I look back, I’m like, oh, it all makes sense. But at the time you’re like, what the heck am I doing, who am I, what do I want to do, and I think again, I see this in my students, the ones who feel both like the pull of creativity, which design gets you, but also, you know, there is some pragmatism about like how do I use this energy I have about design and people and social justice and how also do I get a job? Like how do I incorporate that into a professional identity? And so, again, I feel like UX is a really beautiful place to bring those things together.

[00:05:43.700] – Janice Summers

Absolutely, absolutely, and the practical approach to things because I mean, you know, we live in a real world, so it’s great to be in theory and it’s great to be In experiment, but how do you apply it?

[00:06:00.350] – Liz Fraley

So how does–

[00:06:01.340] – Emma Rose

We build and make things that are going to do good in the world, how do we use our time and our work in a way like Techcomm has always had a pragmatic side, right?

[00:06:15.800] – Janice Summers

Absolutely, absolutely.

[00:06:17.430] – Emma Rose

Yeah, and it’s like much more so, I think, than other fields in the humanities. But it’s also had a humanistic and social justice side at the same time. And so I think, again, bringing together this, wanting to do things, wanting to do and wanting to do good and bringing those things together is really where I think our field is unique in that aspect.

[00:06:38.440] – Janice Summers

Right, right.

[00:06:40.250] – Liz Fraley

How does, so people like to put boxes around us all right, we– techcomm works really hard to adjust those boxes. How do techcomm, traditional technical communicators start to look at UX and be able to move in that direction? What do they need to know, what do they need to study like, how do they need to grow in order to adopt that and be accepted by other professions that interact with UX.

[00:07:10.780] – Emma Rose

Right, so I think you’re bringing up a really good point, which is like UX is not only owned by techcomm, right,  like it’s not really owned by anything or anyone, but it’s a combination of all of these disciplines, computer science, psychology, cognitive science, visual design, library science, all of these different disciplines have informed our User Experience practice and shaped it. And I think we see people coming out of all of those different disciplines and training and then moving into UX as part of their, part of their job. And so just like many other fields, like people who are currently technical communicators, probably have lots of different training as well, right like they are also shaped by their educational experiences, whether they went to a 2 or 4 year degree or learned through certification processes, and all of that training has informed the way that they see the field. I do think that and I think we could all acknowledge that UX and techcomm have a special relationship for a number of reasons.

[00:08:15.670] – Emma Rose

And I think it’s because, like techcomm has always been focused on people and always been focused on that interplay between people and technology or information, and so we have a unique relationship, I also feel like a lot of the people who really launch the field are people who consider themselves technical communicators. So I’m thinking of like the, I like to refer to them as like the grandmothers of the field, although maybe they don’t all want to be referred to that way, like Ginny Redish, Carol Barnum, JoAnn Hackos, right, Karen Schreiber, like they all feel aligned and affiliated with technical communication, and they are some of the people, some of the women who built the field, who built the methods and defined early days what the field was going to look like and how it would act. So anyway, just to give that context, I think that UX and Techcomm have a special relationship. I also think that UX is evolving so rapidly and because of the influx of other fields and other disciplines, it is really catalyzed and because it’s also if we are going to put our business hats on, it has really shown to be a big advantage for companies, right, like if they do this well, and because of our digital focus of everything now, UX is really, really critically important. And so the field of UX has just taken off.

[00:09:41.860] – Emma Rose

And there are new things, new methods, new skills, new practices all the time. And I feel like perhaps people who have been in a more traditional technical communication career have not– we always are all learning all the time, right, like that is something that I think any technology professional or working professional can identify with. But techcomm, I think, has a different– doesn’t have that same trajectory, that same sort of like the movement of UX has in terms of having to keep up with the new tools, the new methods and things that are changing all the time. So maybe I’ll disagree with me and I welcome that disagreement, but I think that there is something a little bit different there. So one thing is that we all need to do is continuously be learning, right, like it’s not like you get your degree or certification and you start your job and you’re like, I’m good, I know everything I need to know, right, like, we all have to continuously be learning, and I think that’s true for technical people and traditional technical Communicator roles, and maybe I have some assumptions by what you mean by that, but after going to STC conferences, I feel like I do know and presenting in those places folks who might consider themselves more of a technical writer as opposed to a user experience professional, right, so I don’t know, maybe I’ll stop there and ask you to clarify. When you say a traditional technical communicator, who do you have in mind?

[00:11:09.880] – Liz Fraley

Well, that’s a good question. I think I’m meaning more the writer that doesn’t have a lot of influence right.

[00:11:22.310] – Emma Rose


[00:11:22.310] – Liz Fraley

Here, write the docs do this what we told you, and you sort of go in it and it really partly is that influence and that connection with the rest of the team and the rest of the company, maybe that, maybe that’s what I may mean by that, that’s a good question.

[00:11:39.330] – Emma Rose


[00:11:39.330] – Liz Fraley

I think so.

[00:11:40.460] – Emma Rose

Yeah, yeah. Is that what you think too Janice when you think of a traditional technical communicator, it’s someone who doesn’t have as much sort of–

[00:11:47.430] – Janice Summers

Yeah, I can see them, I’ve met them, right, and they’re the people that are just like they’re just writing their docs, that’s what they’re doing. They’re just writing their docs day in, day out. And they feel a little removed, right, they just feel like this is what they need to do, they need to turn this out.

[00:12:08.210] – Emma Rose


[00:12:08.660] – Janice Summers

It’s not where they want to be. Does that make sense? Like they have a curiosity for more and a curiosity for expansion, but yet they have this traditional role that’s kind of in this box, right, just write the docs, right, that’s kind of– you know what I’m saying? Am I saying this right?

[00:12:30.230] – Liz Fraley

That’s what I think too.

[00:12:30.890] – Janice Summers

I can see this person, you know, and I’ve met these people, but they have a curiosity.

[00:12:40.750] – Emma Rose

Yeah, so I think that that to me also represents sort of the evolution of the field as well in some ways, right. Traditionally, like so we keep using this word traditional and we all have maybe a different idea of that in our mind, although it seems like there’s some similarity, this idea of a traditional technical communicator who is at the end of the process, who is not engaged and involved in making decisions about products or interfaces or processes, but instead is just documenting or just– that doesn’t feel like a very active or engaging sort of potentially place to be. But I feel like as we have moved in technology from thinking of not thinking about the user until the end, it also seems like that is the big shift in the field, is that we, as I would say, techcomm people, UX people have gotten involved earlier and earlier in the design process. So, I mean, if you think back to some of that, like the inmates are running the asylum, right, the book about software development, about how people who were coding the software developers were making all the interface choices and how that book was a real wake up call to say like, this is not the folks that necessarily should be making these decisions.

[00:14:01.740] – Emma Rose

And instead, it needs to be interdisciplinary. It needs to focus on people, it needs to focus on what people are actually going to want to do with these products. So I think what you’re mentioning is sort of like it is traditional in the way that we used to develop software products in general, is that and that role of the technical communicator, I think in some ways some of those roles and some companies have really evolved to see the technical communicator or the user experience professional as being involved early in the process, helping to find direction and helping understand users along the way. So I think that that is part of it. So what would I say to somebody who is in that role? I mean, I think there’s opportunities to– I don’t know, I think it’s a really challenging question so I appreciate it.

[00:14:50.280] – Emma Rose

But I think that there are potential challenges to engage with people as you produce your work and create your own design process, right, like even if you’re writing the docs, you’re thinking about audience, you’re thinking about who’s going to use these and in what context and so how do you get input in your own process, even if it’s in your own loop of is what I’m writing effective, is it working, and how do I engage my audience in that process? And I think if you can show the value that that brings, you also can potentially, hopefully insert yourself in different ways where your input is legitimized and taken seriously in the design process.

[00:15:33.850] – Liz Fraley

In some ways that seems– just a stray thought, in some ways that seems like so much more effective, a much more positive way to change the way that technical writers and tech doc profession in general and you as an individual at your company to show value to the rest of the team like we for the last 20 years, it’s like, oh, evangelize it, tell them what you do and like la la la. But this seems more effective.

[00:16:06.730] – Janice Summers


[00:16:08.320] – Liz Fraley

Right, I’m part of the user experience, I need to explain to you, like, here’s why I’m– here’s where– , this is real because they’re chasing it to.

[00:16:17.840] – Emma Rose


[00:16:18.800] – Liz Fraley

I don’t know.

[00:16:19.250] – Emma Rose

I mean, and then, like, there can be some commonality or solidarity around the methods that we use and learning in that way. I mean, I don’t think we learn any of these things, we have to learn these things through practice, right, by trying them out. So that’s a potential path.

[00:16:38.150] – Emma Rose

Another thing that I would love to chat about is, yeah, there we go, there’s that theme again. I think another really interesting development in the field is the rise of the UX writer and I think, so one of my colleagues had a conversation with a tech recruiter here in our Puget Sound is in the Seattle area. And this woman who’s a recruiter was like stop training people for technical writing, like we need UX writers. And she was saying this in terms of our program at the University of Washington, Tacoma, where she was like, what we really need is people who can bring their writing expertise together with design expertise and create a micro copy that goes on interfaces because it’s a specialized skill set, and so to see the rise in that and seeing the increasing number of jobs, the communities that are coming up around that, so my brilliant colleague, Dr. Alison Cardinal, created a UX writing class, and I think we’re the first academic program to offer a whole class in UX writing.

[00:17:50.020] – Emma Rose

But I think it is, it’s this big shift that we’re seeing in the field. Technical writers are never going to go away, but it does seem like the audience for technical writing might be other experts, right, they might be writing for programmers, they’re writing for documentation. But in terms of writing for users, like users aren’t reading big huge documents for things–

[00:18:13.690] – Janice Summers

They don’t have time.

[00:18:15.970] – Emma Rose

They are expanding the interface to guide them. And so I feel like this is a huge area for techcomm and I think that we as a field need to jump on it like this is already what we do, and how can we help shape that UX writing profession and roll. Have you– wait I know you’re all in Silicon Valley, right, do you see UX writing emerge down there?

[00:18:37.890] – Liz Fraley

So there have been several positions that are now looking for UX writers. And it’s really it’s at those more evolved companies, really, right. They already have UX teams, they have UX designers. So then they start to add the rest of the panel. Reception has been weird, I think we talked a little bit about this, reception has been weird on the hiring side, when a techcomm I’ll say traditional writer comes in and says, oh, I’m a UX writer and they don’t have they don’t know how to talk it, they don’t know really what it means, and they’re talking to people who are HCI and do.

[00:19:25.920] – Emma Rose


[00:19:26.190] – Liz Fraley

Right, and they’re getting– they’re not being received well and they’re sort of ending up on a list of, yeah, I don’t ever want to talk to this person again anywhere that I have to do work. Which is unfortunate and not what anybody wants. So how do you, so you’ve got the first class. It’s design skills and writing skills, how do you define what the difference between the UX writer and a technical writer is?

[00:19:51.120] – Emma Rose


[00:19:51.480] – Liz Fraley

How do you define the difference?

[00:19:53.810] – Emma Rose

Yeah, yeah. I’m happy to talk about it. And you should also have like Dr. Kahneman on it, I bet she will be a great guest for you aIso.

[00:19:59.100] – Liz Fraley

I wrote the name down.

[00:20:03.090] – Emma Rose

I think the focus really is on an audience and on interface. So the audience is like the end user sounds too general, but it is a person using a product as the audience as opposed to I think a lot of technical writers are writing for as Intech’s specifically are writing for developers, right, they’re writing for– or they are writing business to business, they are writing policy documents, they are writing those longer pieces that require lots of research, and they’re detailed and they detail everything, right?

[00:20:35.670] – Liz Fraley


[00:20:36.660] – Emma Rose

A UX writer is more– they’re focused on what are the words on the interface and how do these words both convey meaning but also convey brand and tone and so it’s microcopy right, it’s your error messages, which, again technical communicators have been writing here, have been asking to write error messages for a long time, but it’s like error messages. It’s the,i saw one article that talked about it like if you wear a Fitbit and you get your goal for the day, like a UX writer wrote that copy of like, yay, congratulations, right, it is this really micro versions of it and it is more like UX because every single word is tested with end users, it’s evaluated, you’re doing research with end users all the time to understand what resonates. So it’s a tighter, more iterative process where, again, I think of technical writing as a little bit more comprehensive and like a documentary, like a document that is like going to represent everything. So I see some questions in this chat about–

[00:21:41.900] – Liz Fraley

Yeah, most people want to learn more, so I will point them at you for sure, and I assume the class is online.

[00:21:51.920] – Emma Rose

Yeah, it is. But I’m also happy to share some– there’s a couple of books that have been written about it so I can share some of those resources.

[00:21:59.030] – Liz Fraley

Absolutely will. So here’s one of the questions is really like how, if you’re starting out, you want to make that transition, where can you get that experience or can you create projects, usually I tell people if they want to get into like API writing to volunteer for an open source project, for example, because those, it gives you all kinds of street cred to be a part of one of those. Are there places for UX experience where you can just volunteer and help out?

[00:22:29.540] – Emma Rose

There are and I’ve got a website. It’s not on the top of my head right now, but I’ll send it to you afterwards. That is all about UX volunteer opportunities, so there’s that. But I think the most important thing I would tell people, whether UX writing or UX in general, the most important thing that you need is a portfolio. They’re absolutely expected at this point. And the portfolio is not just like pretty pictures of what you’ve done, but it really explains the process that you have gone through in design. So it becomes almost a– it’s an object that represents your experience, but it’s also something that you can speak to as you’re sharing what you’ve done with people. So what goes in that portfolio could be volunteer experience, open-source projects. You could also just take I mean, we say we have been saying this for years, but like take something and redesign it like a bad website, a bad experience, or just a copy on a page that you think could be improved and redesign it and show a before and after and be able to articulate your process, how you got feedback and why these choices work.

[00:23:40.760] – Emma Rose

So portfolios are just–I mean, I tell my students this all the time, they’re absolutely expected walking in the door in any UX or UX adjacent kind of job.

[00:23:50.600] – Janice Summers

Well, and it sounds like with the user design, it’s a journey book. It’s not necessarily here is an after, here’s a before. What matters is that journey that you take and the decisions that you make along the way, because in user interface, it’s ever-evolving and ever-changing. It’s not stagnant. So you need to adopt and adapt. And that’s the key thing, I think between–

[00:24:16.700] – Liz Fraley


[00:24:17.240] – Janice Summers

That journey from technical communication and to user experience is that it’s an adaptive field and it’s one that you are constantly learning and evolving and changing because society changes, you know, applications change, technology change, and people change. So the field is an adaptive field, right, am I getting that right? So I think it’s a journey book, I think you need to look at it not just like a portfolio, but as a journey.

[00:24:48.710] – Emma Rose


[00:24:49.390] – Janice Summers

Right, and like I started with you is what’s your origin story, that’s important because it informs your decisions along the way. So when you start a project, it’s okay, well, what attracted you to this project and then the evolution of it? Because we all like that story and that story is your decision process.

[00:25:10.730] – Emma Rose

Yeah, absolutely, and in UX, storytelling is such a key skill.

[00:25:15.670] – Janice Summers


[00:25:16.070] – Emma Rose

And so your portfolio needs to do that work as well. It needs to tell that story of the process of how something changed and evolved based on following a design process, so absolutely yeah.

[00:25:29.260] – Janice Summers

Because all of those micro-authoring, that micro-writing, it’s all about engagement with an individual at the other end. And that’s what that company is interested is in that long-term engagement and that relationship bond between a person and the application or the product and solidifying that in a way through your communication with them. That happens– really not the end-users not so conscious of it like you talked about the Fitbit. I have a Fitbit, and I love the little rewards and I love the little messages and it’s just enough and not too much, and because of that, it’s solidified my relationship with that company and that brand, so–

[00:26:21.980] – Emma Rose

Yeah, yeah, and so knowing the brand and the voice and the tone, right, like it’s going to be different depending on the products that you’re working on right. If you’re working at a cybersecurity company, you’re going to have a different tone and brand. And so I think also showing the flexibility in your writing in that way at the micro-level is really important for people who are interested in going into that direction. But you’re right–

[00:26:51.440] – Janice Summers

That’s a good point that you bring up, that’s a good point. So when you’re building your portfolio, if you want to break into this and you’re doing volunteer projects, look for a diversity of projects because you want to be able to speak from a diverse company, right. There’s a lot of different companies and you want to speak to an individual from those perspectives. So that’s, again, adaptability.

[00:27:15.580] – Emma Rose

Yeah, I completely agree, and it shows that sort of flexibility as well. But I think it’s an important point to mention which you both brought up as well, is that the role of the UX writer is definitely the big companies. It’s the big tech companies, right it’s your Googles, it’s your Facebook, Amazon, those sorts of places are looking for those roles. Your smaller places are not going to be right, there is still the great book by Leah Buley – The UX Team of One. That still is the situation that many people will find themselves in, if you’re in a small company or in a nonprofit. You’re going to maybe be the only person working on writing, working on design, working on content, and so I think that that’s something else that people should be aware of, like big companies, you get specialized roles, little companies, and there’s lots of them, you’re going to have a more generalist role.

[00:28:07.410] – Emma Rose

And so I think that’s something that’s helpful to make clear– I try and make that clear to my students of–like not everybody wants to or needs to go to work at a big tech company. There’s lots of opportunity, but you have to think about — we’re going to need to be more of a generalist, wear many hats. If you’re at a smaller place, versus, you know, again, a UX writer might be just working on one page and the messaging for one page for weeks at a time right, so, again, thinking about generalist and specialist roles is helpful for folks as well.

[00:28:41.220] – Janice Summers

Well, and I think it’s important that a lot of generalists, people get involved in user design and learning about it and incorporating it, right, because they have that ability that they can incorporate the practices and the philosophies into their general role.

[00:29:00.870] – Emma Rose


[00:29:01.710] – Janice Summers


[00:29:03.000] – Liz Fraley

It never hurts to learn more.

[00:29:05.310] – Janice Summers


[00:29:06.390] – Emma Rose

I know, but it could feel overwhelming too, like I get that, I did a study last year where we interviewed seventy-five senior UX people and about just a variety of things, but like about the skills that they’re looking for when they’re hiring, about what kinds of trends there are in the field, how they communicate on their teams, and we wrote a paper that was like, OK, here are the skills that people are looking for and the number of things that people mentioned that emerging UX professional needs to have is kind of a staggering list. And so I agree that we all need to be learning all of the time, but it also can feel especially for a new and emerging, like somebody coming right out of undergrad, It feels really overwhelming, like what you need to know to get in the door. So I do want to kind of temper that and mention that because it’s real.

[00:29:59.680] – Liz Fraley

Yeah, it’s real. I was going  to– I had something, but now it’s gone because I was all mesmerized.

[00:30:08.580] – Janice Summers

So I just wonder how realistic that list is, though.

[00:30:12.180] – Emma Rose


[00:30:12.750] – Janice Summers

You know what I mean, like, when the rubber really hits the road, the decision makers, how realistic is this laundry list of everything it must be all knowing?

[00:30:23.970] – Emma Rose

I mean, I can break it down a little bit more. And this is what I’m trying to do again, working with my students, and in the writing that we’ve done about it already, yes it’s an overwhelming list, but let’s break it down. So in our first paper on this, we talked about, we sorted them into 3 categories, and oftentimes you’ll hear hard and soft skills, but like, I don’t really like that dichotomy, so we went instead with technical and human skills, which feel a little bit more descriptive. So your technical skills for UX. So I’ll talk about these first 2 categories. The technical skills are like everybody needs to know research, like everybody needs to know usability testing, right, like that is just right out of the bat, like that should be in your toolkit. Everybody needs to know a little bit about design, right, and then it gets a little bit more specialized after that.

[00:31:13.170] – Emma Rose

So you might need to know visual design, you might need to know a little bit of coding, interaction design, so there’s a variety of things on that technical side, on the human skills side, now, this is I think everybody kind of needs to know these things. Collaboration, like you have to be able to successfully collaborate with other people. It is just kind of– and that’s more nuanced, but I will just say collaboration, because none of these are solo jobs like and that might be something helpful for our traditional technical communicators to know that, like, design is definitely a team sport. So you have to be able to clearly communicate, that’s another skill, clearly communicate, be a good writer, be able to collaborate, be able to handle conflict is also something that came up quite a bit in the human skills category.

[00:32:02.400] – Emma Rose

So that’s an interesting piece right there so–

[00:32:06.400] – Janice Summers

Really, really quick. Don’t you find, though, with a lot of tech– I found with a lot of technical writers, even the traditional ones their collaboration, even those that are like in a team of one, I think they’re pretty aware of that, because they always have to deal with subject matter experts. And I think they’re really good at negotiating with some pretty persnickety subject matter experts right, honestly, and trying to negotiate where some subject matter experts or product experts might want– they are really, I think technical writers are really good at negotiating on behalf of the user a lot of times. So I think that the whole field, no matter if it’s UX or not, I think that’s something that with technical communicators, I find they’re really they’re good at. And I don’t think they give themselves enough credit.

[00:33:03.990] – Emma Rose

That’s a great point. And definitely the ability to deal with difficult people is a skillset–

[00:33:11.010] – Janice Summers


[00:33:13.980] – Emma Rose

In other works that I’ve done, so it’s about negotiation, but it’s also about persuasion. So it is advocating on behalf of the user, but it’s being able to in a room full of people, when you have developers who are like, no, we’re not going to make that change because it’s going to delay the product or this or that. It’s the ability to know when to persuade, when to fight, when to sort of step back and again, I think technical communicators know that as well, but part of our research was talking to people who were like, yeah I know somebody who’s really, really good at this. And it’s like a Jedi mind trick when they do it, like persuade people about from the vantage point of the user, in this really interesting and persuasive way. So I do think, I mean, it’s a spectrum, right, like many of us are good at these things, and then you see somebody who’s really good at it and you’re like woah, that’s cool.

[00:34:10.760] – Emma Rose

But like one more piece on the technical side, a number of people in our study talked about that T shaped skills that you need really to have in UX specifically, that you’ve got to be able to like have some design, some testing, some writing, some of these kinds of technical skills. But then you really need to go deep, the bottom part of the T deep into one area. So maybe you’re an expert at user research, right, maybe you’re an expert at interaction design, maybe you’re a coding expert. So it’s like everybody needs a little bit and then but each individual needs to have like this is something that I’m like I own and I’m really good at and I know a lot about. And learning that, I’m like, oh, I’m bringing that into the classroom. Like I’m asking students to map all the possible things that they could spend their time getting really good at and say, which one or two of these do you feel like you really want to develop that level of expertise. Because then it makes it less overwhelming, right, then it’s not like, oh, I need to know 20 different things, it’s like I need to know a bunch of things and then I need to go deep in one area.

[00:35:18.990] – Liz Fraley

Yeah, I like the T, That’s a great way to look at it.

[00:35:22.880] – Emma Rose

And then there’s– can I tell you about the one other category?

[00:35:25.730] – Janice Summers and Liz Fraley


[00:35:25.730] – Emma Rose

Like the one other one which I feel like is really fascinating, is what we call Dispositions. And these are not skills, but they’re more like personality traits that they come up again and again as being differentiators when people are looking for new folks to join their team. So dispositions include things like curious, humble, persistent, like it’s things that are about someone’s character as opposed to like a skill. And so many people in our interviews used the same exact phrase, which was like, I can teach somebody how to prototype, but I can’t teach them how to be humble. I can teach somebody about research, but I can’t teach them how to be curious or passionate. And so, again, as an educator, when I hear that, I’m like, yeah we can, I mean, I don’t know, maybe that’s not humble enough, but I’m like, I think we can teach towards dispositions.

[00:36:22.460] – Emma Rose

Like, I’m not out here trying to like change people, but I do want to make visible for students. Like this is the stuff that’s going to differentiate you. So think about how you, how your character, how your work can demonstrate this.

[00:36:39.300] – Janice Summers

And it’s interesting that you bring up character.

[00:36:43.250] – Liz Fraley


[00:36:47.510] – Janice Summers

I think something that’s important is that the professionals, the UX writer, also needs to align themselves with an opportunity that’s in alignment with their character and their natural abilities, right, or understand that you may have to manage your natural traits in order to gain a certain experience, right, because I think that knife cuts both ways, that character right, because maybe I’m not such I don’t know, maybe I’m not so humble. Maybe I’m more bold and out there, right,  which would work really well in the right environment.

[00:37:38.640] – Emma Rose

Right, yeah.

[00:37:39.480] – Janice Summers

So don’t think that if you’re a bold person that you can’t work in this field because sometimes they might need someone who’s bold and brave and will go toe to toe to get that, to move that needle, to help pull a company into the next evolution of where writing needs to be.

[00:37:59.220] – Emma Rose

Completely, I totally agree with you.

[00:38:01.200] – Janice Summers

So I think that goes both ways, and having headhunted a lot in my life, I will tell you that, you know, you need to interview a company as much as that company is interviewing you.

[00:38:11.784] – Liz Fraley


[00:38:12.270] – Janice Summers

So there might be somebody who wants a certain characteristic or trait. They might not be for you.

[00:38:17.820] – Emma Rose

Yeah, true.

[00:38:18.540] – Janice Summers

And that’s OK. So don’t like that’s my two cents.

[00:38:22.510] – Emma Rose

Yeah, I agree. I think it’s really nuanced, but being able to show students that these and again, I’m working with very early career professionals that these are things that people are really looking for and having them make the choice of like doing an inventory of like where they fall on those different characters and where they want to develop.

[00:38:44.070] – Janice Summers

Right, and that’s a matter of knowing yourself, right, don’t be afraid to go and try for that opportunity, but know yourself and don’t feel bad if it doesn’t come your way.

[00:38:58.060] – Emma Rose


[00:38:59.210] – Liz Fraley

Yeah, and being you know, and taking that chance to be confident in what you know you’re good at, right, I mean, you know, you just– I noticed that a lot of times some of the technical writers I’ve talked to over the years, they like to know, they like to have everything already ready, like I know everything, now I can talk to you, but you don’t have to know everything in order to talk to them, right, it’s far more than that.

[00:39:26.760] – Janice Summers

That’s a good point and I think that also goes to when we talk about the journey and understanding the journey and being self-aware, right.

[00:39:36.940] – Liz Fraley

We’ve got a great comment from the audience. She’s curious about the attribute of humility because it makes sense when dealing with users, but it also isn’t a limitation when dealing with development. I totally agree, that’s great.

[00:39:52.240] – Janice Summers


[00:39:52.240] – Liz Fraley

So maybe that’s why there’s so much tech that’s unusable, because you don’t see that in the development team as often as you would in a writer.

[00:40:01.510] – Janice Summers


[00:40:02.350] – Emma Rose

That’s a great point. And thank you Anita, for that great question. I think that’s a really great point, and I think we’ve all worked with development teams where, as Janice mentioned, you might need to be a little older. Some of the humility comes from– it came up in the interviews that that humility comes from within the design team, when you’re coming up with design solutions, you have to be completely– and also in research, you’ve got to be ready for your design to fail, for people to hate it. And you have to not take that personally and take that input. So I agree with that. But I do– and also I mean, this was also mentioned I gave that example of like knowing when to push back and really advocating for the user versus knowing there might be times where you’re like, we’re not going to win this one, so I think it’s, as we know, a complex rhetorical space that we need to move into. And I think just making that complexity more visible for early career folks is going to be helpful it’s like know when to push and trying to you know, when to– when you cannot.

[00:41:12.470] – Liz Fraley

So and for later career folks too, or anybody trying to transition should know that. All right, everyone loves this teaching humility and thinking specifically about connection between empathy and respect and humility in marginalized populations. She is– yeah, that’s absolutely– the question, though is, can you talk more about how you teach that to new practitioners or to people, how do they practice?

[00:41:38.050] – Emma Rose

Yeah, yeah, thank you Laura for that great question. And I also want to be like, let me think about it for a couple of moment, like I’m teaching a new class coming up here in January and I’m trying to figure it out right now. But I think especially when we’re working with students with privilege and dominant identities, they can also fall into this pattern of like I’m here to speak for the user like I– where they may not have– they might have done a little bit of research, but they do not at all have an understanding of the lived experience, it is why it’s so important that we need to have diverse teams and so that we’re not just doing research with marginalized populations or for marginalized populations, but it’s done in a participatory collaborative way, so I think with students, I really try and look for projects that are not going to be, that are going to sort of push on some of those boundaries or include some of those boundaries so students can have those different experiences and then really to talk about positionality within design.

[00:42:48.400] – Emma Rose

Luckily, there’s many, many wonderful books and resources out there that talk about bias in design and how design has been for the marginalized people who have already been marginalized. So we incorporate some of that work, but then on the actual projects, we look for diverse teams and then really caution against that idea that user research is going to necessarily save anyone or anything. 

[00:43:17.710] – Liz Fraley

So stay tuned and keep an eye on your website.

[00:43:21.070] – Emma Rose

I guess so or you can just reach out we can chat.

[00:43:24.790] – Liz Fraley

Definitely keep connection. Well, we are out of time and like it just zipped past.

[00:43:30.160] – Janice Summers

Yeah, right.

[00:43:30.550] – Liz Fraley

Everyone is so energized. All the chat is like, I’m not ready to go. That’s exciting, it’s great. Thank you so much for being here, for sharing so much experience with us. It’s great.

[00:43:43.840] – Emma Rose

Thank you for having me.

[00:43:45.880] – Liz Fraley

We’ll look forward to seeing how the class turns out and what your conclusions are, very excited to watch.

[00:43:51.730] – Janice Summers

We’ll have you come back after you’ve taught this class… And remember, have your journey book.

[00:43:57.900] – Liz Fraley

Report in

[00:43:59.410] – Janice Summers

Have Your Journey book and walk us through, I love stories, walk us through the journey.

[00:44:06.130] – Liz Fraley

Awesome. All right, thank you and we’ll see you on the next one.

[00:44:09.970] – Emma Rose

Alright, thank you.

[00:44:10.630] – Liz Fraley

That was so great.

[00:44:13.240] – Emma Rose


In this episode

Emma Rose has spent her career crossing the academic and industry divide. She is currently an Associate Professor at the University of Washington Tacoma and an Adjunct Associate Professor in Human Centered Design & Engineering at University of Washington Seattle. Her research interests include participatory and human-centered design and developing methods to engage communities and marginalized populations in the design process. She is also the Past Chair of ACM SIGDOC, a professional organization dedicated to the design of communication. Prior to her academic career, she spent over a decade working at a User Experience consultancy helping organizations bring design thinking into their practices and product development.

What is the relationship between User Experience and Technical Communication? Are they the same field, do they overlap, or are they distinct? How should we be preparing the next generation of technical communicators to work at the intersection between UX and TC? What skills do professionals need to be successful?

In this Room 42, join Dr. Emma Rose in a discussion on the evolving state of UX and Technical Communication. She’ll share some of her recent research results that examine how the UX industry is changing. She’ll also discuss the specific skills and dispositions career professionals need to succeed in UX and how that is informing teaching and practice.


Email: ejrose@uw.edu

Twitter: @emmarosephd

Faculty Page: https://sites.uw.edu/ejrose/

Website: https://sites.uw.edu/uxpedagogy/

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