How to Get Invited to That Cool New Project

Room 42 is where practitioners and academics meet to share knowledge about breaking research. In this episode, Jack Labriola explains how to help colleagues in different disciplines see the importance of technical communication and user experience and get yourself invited to some very interesting tables.

Airdate: March 30, 2021

Season 1 Episode 19 | 48 min

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Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:13.090] – 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 Jack Labriola, today’s guest in Room 42. Jack is an Assistant Professor of Technical Communication at Kennesaw State University. He teaches Usability testing, Information Architecture, and a Senior Capstone Design Course. He’s researched, written and presented a variety of topics ranging from the coedited collection, Content Strategy and Technical Communication to articles on Minimalist Design Aesthetics, Mobile User experience, Conference Papers and university partnerships, and building student research toolkits.

[00:00:53.490] – Liz Fraley

Jack’s professional mission is to continue to discover opportunities to research and create better experiences for users in their day-to-day use of technology, and I love this part. In his own words, he works to the benefit of users of all technology, documents, and products to create better experiences while interacting with them. Today, Jack is here to help us start answering the question, How do we Help Colleagues in Different Disciplines, see the Importance of Technical Communication and User Experience? 

[00:01:23.180] – Liz Fraley


[00:01:25.690] – Jack Labriola

Thanks for having me. That was an incredible introduction Liz. Thank you.

[00:01:30.580] – Liz Fraley

I love that phrase. You sent that to me and it’s on your website I think, your own website. I love that phrase because that really brings it all together. 

[00:01:41.850] – Jack Labriola

Absolutely, absolutely, we have to attack it from all angles and we have to be really invested with our users and what they’re doing.

[00:01:48.160] – Liz Fraley

And it’s not just the thing, right, it is the documents, I find myself more and more looking at, when I have to try something out or I’m thinking of buying something that’s I know is going to be–I don’t quite get, I don’t know how to use it to its best. I’ll read their docs before I even start,  before I purchase sometimes. What does that look like?

[00:02:12.960] – Jack Labriola

Absolutely. How can I get started in the most effective and efficient way? I might have to just read your documentation and I hope it can help me.

[00:02:20.610] – Janice Summers

You know, the other interesting thing is the documentation also shows, do you care?

[00:02:26.010] – Jack Labriola


[00:02:26.850] – Janice Summers

Right, you know, there’s that aspect too when you’re trying to compare two things and it’s like, well, whose documentation shows that they really care, like who is taking the effort to understand me as a user rather than just trying to sell me on something.

[00:02:41.670] – Jack Labriola

Right, hey, we know we had to throw in information booklets, so here you go.

[00:02:47.310] – Janice Summers


[00:02:48.090] – Jack Labriola

Versus we want to help onboard you into this experience, into our product. Let’s do this together. I’m going to hold your hand and walk you through it.

[00:02:55.740] – Janice Summers


[00:02:56.700] – Liz Fraley

You’ve got 12 pages of FAQ question that’ll do right? That literally was one thing I saw recently.

[00:03:04.200] – Janice Summers

Oh, no, oh, don’t get me started on FAQ pages.

[00:03:10.230] – Liz Fraley


[00:03:13.330] – Janice Summers

So let’s talk about, what we’re here to discuss is how do we break out of our comfort zone and really cross the bridge into areas and disciplines that we don’t normally have exposure to like, how do we start doing that, this is a complex thing, it’s not that simple because we’re talking about a group of introverts.

[00:03:39.970] – Jack Labriola

Yeah, well, I’ll push back on that a little bit, because sometimes I think it is easy or easier. I think, than you may think it is because I do think there’s some intimidation there sometimes. But it is about breaking out of your comfort zone, because there’s so much that people from other disciplines can offer your research or your area as well as you being able to offer them something.

[00:04:04.550] – Janice Summers


[00:04:06.030] – Jack Labriola

And so the biggest example where it sort of happened to me, where I was the one on the outside, was my first year here. I set up my little faculty web page with my research areas and interests and things like that and there was a professor in psychology who was doing some work, never really heard of User Experience or Usability before, but it kept popping up in the literature that he was reading for his lit review, and he was like, I wonder if there’s somebody here at KSU that does this and kudos to him. He said, I’m going to go look, and he just put in a Google search on the faculty web page, and then there comes Jack Labriola to the top.

[00:04:55.560] – Janice Summers

Good job on your SEO and your keywords.

[00:04:59.450] – Jack Labriola

Absolutely, absolutely, and first web page, the first link to pop up, but he just he found me, he found my faculty and he said, I just want to introduce myself. I’m actually on your campus today. Could I stop by your office? and this was a stranger, a person like I don’t know anybody. It’s my first year here. And sure enough, the psychology professor just walks up to my door, knocks on my door, introduces himself. We get to talk and it’s like an hour later and he’s like, I think this would be a really great partnership because I didn’t know what User Experience was, but it kept popping up and here you are, just sort of like you just happened to be here, and we’ve been working on things together now for the last two years, so it is just as easy as just sending that first email.

[00:05:51.340] – Janice Summers

Right, which school of psychology is he in?

[00:05:55.630] – Jack Labriola

So he does a lot of cognitive psychology.

[00:05:57.630] – Janice Summers

OK, yeah.

[00:05:58.990] – Jack Labriola

A lot of mental workload stuff, and so he was coming to me about this project that he sort of already started. He wanted to test the design of different keyboards like computer keyboards, and so he started reading a little bit on like minimalist and aesthetic design, and like this guy, Jacob Nielsen, kept popping up with these usability heuristics. And he was like, is this something that you know? And I was like, say no more, this is what I teach in my usability classes all the time.

[00:06:34.840] – Jack Labriola

And he was like, oh, my gosh, this is the perfect collaborator here. So I do think that it can be as simple as that. But, there’s also sort of this feeling, I think, sometime where we have to make that argument for ourselves as to what we can sort of bring to the table and maybe talking to someone in psychology, talking to somebody in engineering or in the hard sciences you know something like that is a little tougher to be like I don’t know if I really fit in here or if they’re going to maybe push back on what I do because it’s different from what they know, and so I sometimes think that’s the barrier that stops a lot of us from maybe reaching out and starting that conversation.

[00:07:24.340] – Janice Summers

Well, you know, it’s interesting. So I kind of have like a couple of questions and then it’s kind of like relates to that. So you mentioned minimalism, right? and we talk about minimalism. Oh, I’m like keen on minimalism. Now, other people are talking about minimalism and are they talking about it in the same way that we think about it, but they’re not communicating it the same way?

[00:07:49.910] – Jack Labriola

So the way that he was approaching it and the way that he was reading about it in psychology was all about mental workload and if we’re asking our users to maybe accomplish a task using a keyboard that realistically they only need to click five or six buttons.

[00:08:09.180] – Liz Fraley


[00:08:09.990] – Jack Labriola

They have the entire I can sort of use it as a pro, right, they have the entire keyboard here, there are only need five of these keys. And if we ask them and we’re trying to maybe see how fast they can recognize something and click the appropriate button, they start to slow down a little bit because there’s just even though it’s only five buttons and they know it’s only the ASDF key. It’s still it’s just a little tough because there’s just so many things their fingers could possibly be touching. And so the study that he was focusing on was, well, what if we took away the traditional keyboard and I gave you a keyboard that only did have five buttons?

[00:08:46.350] – Jack Labriola

How fast and efficient could I make your tasks? And it just starts to be this, OK, how can we remove some of the fluff in terms of whatever product that they’re using? And I’m thinking the whole time, I’m really curious, why was this keyboard designed in such a way? Why these five buttons? Why were they designed this big or this color or with this material? But that’s not what he’s thinking about. He’s thinking all about, hmm how can we just like remove the buttons just to make things more simple? He’s not thinking about what those buttons should look like or how it would really help the user in terms of the design. It’s just more about efficiency and how fast can I let them do this project or this work?

[00:09:33.970] – Janice Summers

And you bring up a really interesting point, because from somebody else’s perspective, they’re not thinking about those little tiny details, right, from different schools of thought. And  I think that’s one of the things I think we talked about this before, is that sometimes people don’t know what a professional technical writer does, they don’t understand it. So it’s kind of like you need to communicate to them in a language that they understand because as communicators, this is something we should have pretty good practice in right, but we forget, we forget, and that’s normal. It’s like, you know, psychologists think everybody speaks psychology, right, engineers think everybody speaks engineering and they get into a specific language and they think everybody understands that, right. So we all get into it–so I think one of the things, one of the other strategies, when you’re trying to collaborate or break into groups that you’re not normally in, is how do they speak? It’s like a foreign language, learn that language a little bit and then communicate it back to them. They’re like, oh, you help with that stuff.

[00:10:49.150] – Jack Labriola


[00:10:50.110] – Janice Summers

And from the psychologist’s point of view, wasn’t he like thrilled like, oh, my gosh, I never thought of that.

[00:10:57.100] – Jack Labriola

Yeah, because we start to realize as I start to bring up my background and I’m like, well, here’s how I would approach that study or how I would approach that design. He’s sort of like sitting there and he’s like, this kind of sounds like human factors, research, and I was like, yes, absolutely. I was like, OK, here’s my end, here’s my common ground.

[00:11:19.420] – Janice Summers


[00:11:20.020] – Jack Labriola

Because absolutely there is so much usability in UX research on the psychology side that they’re doing such similar work, but they’re calling it something just slightly different.

[00:11:31.360] – Janice Summers


[00:11:31.360] – Jack Labriola

But I’ve done research, I’ve done literature reviews where I’ve gone and read things from the Journal of Applied Ergonomics or the Human Factors and Ergonomics Conference, and so I started to have some of that shared lingo because it was really relevant to my own research. And so I said, OK, here’s my end. And we just start talking and he’s sitting there and he’s like, his mind is just being blown because he’s like, I’ve been doing UX research, but I never knew I was doing it.

[00:12:01.360] – Janice Summers

And they wouldn’t call it that

[00:12:03.100] – Jack Labriola

They wouldn’t call it that now. 

[00:12:04.200] – Janice Summers

No, absolutely not

[00:12:04.300] – Jack Labriola

So, and so he starts to think all of a sudden, wow, there’s so much literature and research out there that could have maybe helped me or influenced my work that I just wasn’t even aware existed.

[00:12:19.410] – Janice Summers

Yeah, yeah.

[00:12:19.990] – Jack Labriola

And so even just having that conversation to be like. Hey, let me explain a little bit, by what you do, and then all of a sudden it starts to click and you’re like, I do kind of know what you’re talking about. I can see where you’re going to be a super valuable asset to this project.

[00:12:35.030] – Janice Summers

Right, right, and it’s finding those crossroads, because we had a conversation with another professor. This is interesting, I like the way they phrased things because where technical and professional communication sits it’s literally at the crossroads of just about every discipline out there.

[00:12:52.920] – Jack Labriola


[00:12:53.780] – Janice Summers

Every profession. So I think that’s one of the challenge, because sometimes when people are stuck in that profession, like when you think about the medical field, they’re stuck in that profession, you kind of want them stuck on that track, right, you kind of want them to be. But a good technical and professional communicator can understand or takes the time to understand their lingo, but understands users like that’s our emphasis is on user focus so that they can bring that technology to people. And I think that’s another unique thing. And I don’t think that the doctors understand that, the non-medical track.

[00:13:34.270] – Jack Labriola

Well, and I think that’s why technical writers and technical communicators will always have, if you want to use your terminology, a spot at the table, right, I mean, there are always going to be needed because someone needs to bridge that gap between the jargon that the doctor or the engineer or the psychologist is using versus who their audience are or who their target users are. And how do we make sense of all that at the technical communicator is always perfectly situated to be that person.

[00:14:06.610] – Janice Summers

Yeah, and I think it’s not always noticed by other people, and I think if we wait for other people to invite us, you’re never going to get a seat at the table like it’s not going to happen. Sorry, sorry, kids. Not going to be a reality. That’s not the discipline. We’re talking about a field that basically, you know, up until recently, fairly recently, people tripped into the field like.

[00:14:34.200] – Jack Labriola


[00:14:34.950] – Janice Summers

How many people have we talked to in the professional world that have like well, that kind of got something to do in the technical writing because I knew how to spell.

[00:14:47.430] – Jack Labriola

I was just a good writer and so that was the best skill set I was able to bring in. 

[00:14:53.850] – Janice Summers

Right, right, or I was the engineer who is worried about the end-user. So I ended up being the person who was writing the documentation.

[00:15:02.160] – Jack Labriola

Right, yeah.

[00:15:03.180] – Janice Summers

So and now it’s great because it’s growing up and it’s a professional you know it’s got a lot of meat behind it now, but I think it still has that legacy of people don’t understand. So I think it’s up to us in the field, to do the translation for people to listen like Jack, you were open, you put your banner up right? And you are open to the dialog and you worked. I think one of the key things is you took the time to fully listen, which is another talent I think the technical and professional writers have, they listen. You can tell I come from an engineering background because I talk

[00:15:53.190] – Liz Fraley

or she’s used to talking to me with the engineering background.

[00:15:58.560] – Jack Labriola

But it becomes this thing where all of a sudden you take that time to listen to what their issues are, what their problems are, just like you would with a user, with your product. I’m taking the time to listen to my colleague’s research problems and the gap that he needs someone’s expertise or knowledge in, you take that time, you’re able to sort of make the case for how you fit into this project, and then all of a sudden that opens up so many other opportunities. And now I’m working with people in electrical engineering all of a sudden. And so now I’m having conversations with them and they’re saying, OK, well, tell me about this User Experience thing. Like how does that relate to engineering? And then I’m like, OK, like, let me tell you, like this is the perfect opportunity because it becomes this thing where, again, they’re always thinking about, OK, well, how can I build this device or how can I make it smaller or how can I blah blah blah, and I’m like, well, have we shown it to anybody yet? And they’re like, well, it’s not ready and I’m like it doesn’t have to be ready, right, we can start to already incorporate it into our users. And so even just saying some things that for me, I’m like, well, of course this is how I would do it. This is how I would tackle this thing, people in other disciplines just aren’t thinking like that. That’s not there sort of shared knowledge.

[00:17:21.360] – Janice Summers


[00:17:22.920] – Jack Labriola

And so all of a sudden, the engineers were like, we need this guy on our team, and then we ended up writing a grant together because they saw such value in being like, wow, we can show prototypes to our users. Throughout the whole process, and that will help drive and once we started going through all of this, it was like, yes, absolutely, everything just started to click and fall into place.

[00:17:44.680] – Janice Summers


[00:17:45.040] – Jack Labriola

And all it took was one conversation to explain what I do. What user experience is and how that can be beneficial to your particular project and all of a sudden that opened up so many other doors.

[00:18:01.470] – Janice Summers

 Do you think, here’s a silly question, but do you think just by–because of the position of professional and technical writing that you are in User Experience, like it’s not like a separate thing, I mean, there’s a lot more discipline around it, but I think you’re like naturally you’re already in it, you’re in User Experience, right?

[00:18:28.010] – Jack Labriola

I think that there’s a lot of people that would try and make the separation and be like, no, I don’t do that kind of research because, yes, there is a huge discipline of its own. UX has its own entire discipline. But if you really just break it down to its most basic sense, even just for the most basic traditional technical writer, I’m like, are you thinking about your audience, are you thinking about how they’re going to use your writing, your documentation? If the answer is yes and it should be yes, you’re doing at least at a base level, some User Experience.

[00:19:02.480] – Janice Summers

Yeah, yeah, and I think that the exciting thing when we talk about UX, is that writer being brought in early.

[00:19:12.720] – Jack Labriola


[00:19:13.540] – Janice Summers

What you’re talking about is while it’s still in that design, in that incubation phase, as a technical professional right, you can be brought in at that phase before it’s finished because a lot of engineers think, well, wait till it’s done and then you can then we’ll worry about that. Let me finish it first. But now they’re saying, wait, no, it’s advantageous if we bring these user people in early, right, usually quicker.

[00:19:42.410] – Jack Labriola

And then I can even say with this engineering colleague, because now we’re also sort of doing our own little tandem thing now too. We’re working on creating this device and we’re going to try and get it patented. So we’re super excited. But that’s also something that’s really crazy to me, being a technical communicator, like I could have a patented invention, but we were trying to walk through and he’s like, well, I’m going to put in a lot of work and time to figure out the size of this thing. And like what it looks like he’s like. Do you think it would be helpful before I, like, get out my wires and I start to build this thing if I just like 3D printed, just like what I think the shape of it’s going to be? And I was like, yes! And so, I have just this block, this block of plastic. That is sort of the printed, the first version prototype of our device, and once he printed it out and I’m looking at it, I was already starting to think, OK, well, users are going to have this is too bulky or this is too big or there’s not really a lot of space for our buttons here. And all of a sudden, he was like.

[00:20:55.800] – Jack Labriola

You just thought of all that from this little purple like block of 3D print that I did today, that took me 15 minutes and I was like, yeah, we can show this to people like today to get their feedback and he was like, mind blown. He was like, oh, my gosh, this has saved me so much time before I put in all these hours and effort into actually crafting something and building something from scratch.

[00:21:23.430] – Liz Fraley

Well, and you want to fail early and fast, right? You want to find those things sooner rather than later.

[00:21:30.090] – Jack Labriola

Absolutely, I always tell my students we want to fail early and honestly, I mean, we kind of want to fail often, too.

[00:21:36.990] – Janice Summers

I was just gonna say, yeah.

[00:21:38.970] – Jack Labriola

I don’t want to fail on my first prototype and then not talk to anybody else until the end and be like, we must iron out all the kinks the first time around, I’m like, no. I want immediately let’s start testing that second prototype and then fix those things and just keep going until we get to the end and then it doesn’t stop there. Once we launch whatever it is, our hardware, our software, our app, our website, we have to still be doing testing to make sure that we’re keeping it up to date and listening to our users once they’re really working with it.

[00:22:11.100] – Janice Summers

Because it’s never finished. They’re never, it’s never done. It’s going to have new iteration. It doesn’t matter whatever it is. Definitely not websites, websites are never done. It’s never finished because you can always change, because people change. So our technology needs to change. Our experience in life changes. So it’s an ever-evolving and expanding and growing, but I like that you have failed often early.

[00:22:42.900] – Jack Labriola

And then not only do the people change, but it’s their goals and their objectives. Why did I start using your product to begin with? Does that really align with what I’m trying to do with it anymore? And that’s the opportunity for companies or organizations to adapt. I mean, I think the pandemic was a perfect opportunity for so many companies to say, this is not what people want anymore or they want this other thing, we need to figure out a way that we can do it and do it well. And there were some organizations that sort of just said we’re going to just keep powering through with what we do.

[00:23:20.260] – Jack Labriola

And they start to fall behind because they’re not really thinking about the change of people’s goals or objectives, because there’s so many things change for people. And so it should never be a complete product. You can say we’re done from the prototyping and we’ve launched it. You can buy it now, but you should always be making changes. Always be making updates.

[00:23:37.450] – Janice Summers

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Because it’s never, never finished. it’s interesting because challenging times, bring out interesting results, the back end, like it’s going to be really exciting, what happens, you know, on the back side of of the pandemic, because technology because it forces you to stop and pay attention to these things and kind of take a step back.

[00:24:05.280] – Jack Labriola

Yeah, absolutely.

[00:24:06.630] – Janice Summers

And look at things different and see what works and what doesn’t work and what –how has everything changed and how do we meet that, address that? So I think for people in the field and people in research and universities, it’s going to be quite exciting.

[00:24:22.110] – Jack Labriola

Yes, absolutely

[00:24:23.010] – Janice Summers

I can’t help but think that this has changed our way of thinking in some respect and our going forward, I think it’s going to have a profound impact that people don’t realize yet, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

[00:24:41.450] – Jack Labriola

No, I think it’s great. I think it’s great because we have to start thinking more into the future than I think we’re comfortable with sometimes or that we want to. You know, I’m even thinking and I know that we’ve talked about it a couple of times, just me and the two of you about this sort of project I’m working on right now with my psychology colleague that started with this keyboard research. And now we’ve built a driving simulator. We wrote a grant together and built a driving simulator. And we don’t have self-driving cars right now. Nobody does.

[00:25:15.220] – Jack Labriola

We can say that Tesla has some self-driving capabilities, but you still have to pay attention to the steering wheel. So we start thinking, OK, well, what does that look like 10 years from now? Right. And how can we start to be on the forefront of research to say how can we build a better driving experience? How can we prepare our drivers for the future? And so I think what companies have started to do here is like, OK, well, how do we make ourselves competitive ten years from now? Because they weren’t really thinking that far ahead.

[00:25:45.970] – Jack Labriola

They were sort of just thinking, OK, we’re rolling out this one feature you know, We’ll sort of see how it goes. But now you better start thinking, OK, once that features about what other possibilities, capabilities do we have to really offer our potential users or consumers?

[00:26:00.664] – Janice Summers

Right, yeah and it’s like–no, go ahead.

[00:26:04.450] – Liz Fraley

That’s a high-pressure, hard to test kind of environment too? where you can’t stop someone in the middle of driving say, OK, evaluate your button choices without picking this or that one, right because they’re driving.

[00:26:18.956] – Jack Labriola

Yeah, yeah

[00:26:19.370] – Liz Fraley

Right. So you’ve got to start earlier and you have to reach out farther and find other ways to get at that problem, I think right?

[00:26:29.540] – Jack Labriola

Yeah, and so sort of the inspiration behind it, which I thought was so great, my psychology colleague is thinking about, he has two young daughters and he’s thinking about them in the future. And he’s like, if Tesla is where it’s at right now, who knows? 10 years when they get their permit and they get their driver’s license, what kind of cars are going to be on the road, and so he starts to think, what would I want them to have access to? Or the knowledge that I could give to them and people like them, that generation.

[00:27:01.960] – Janice Summers

we could even say, you know, what type of typical people conveyances are going to be on the road.

[00:27:08.570] – Jack Labriola

Yeah, absolutely.

[00:27:09.440] – Janice Summers

Because you know, does it have to be a car?

[00:27:13.700] – Jack Labriola

Doesn’t have to be.

[00:27:14.480] – Janice Summers

We don’t know, yeah.

[00:27:16.790] – Jack Labriola

Yeah, we’ve thought about what like autonomous self-driving shuttles could look like, what do self-driving Ubers with no drivers look like, the car rolls up, picks you up and you go to your destination.

[00:27:32.320] – Janice Summers


[00:27:33.560] – Liz Fraley

I’m picturing Total Recall.

[00:27:37.250] – Janice Summers

Hey, you know, Sci fi oftentimes does become reality. I remember the old Star Trek and the little communication devices.

[00:27:47.960] – Jack Labriola

But it becomes this thing where anything is possible and why should we limit ourselves to what we have access to now.

[00:27:55.430] – Janice Summers


[00:27:55.430] – Jack Labriola

If we are to really think about what a User’s Experience could be rather than what it is right now?

[00:28:01.550] – Janice Summers

Right, and that’s the same thing for like, you know, when people are in technical and professional communication, why limit yourself to what you’re working on right now?

[00:28:11.780] – Jack Labriola


[00:28:12.320] – Janice Summers

Right, look at what other people are getting involved in and where things are happening and get yourself involved. Get yourself an invitation. Now, in your situation, somebody you know, you put up your your banner, you know, you put up your little sign and you advertise, this is me, this is what I do, so it took somebody in psychology to take the initiative to come and seek you out. Luckily, you did good SEO and there was language that you could kind of understand, right?

[00:28:42.600] – Jack Labriola

Yeah, yeah.

[00:28:43.720] – Janice Summers

So you made yourself approachable, but he approached you. You don’t necessarily have to wait for that.

[00:28:48.950] – Jack Labriola

You don’t. And I’ve been on–

[00:28:51.830] – Janice Summers

Yeah, the reverse would work because it’s technical and professional communicators like we know how to read content from other people and try and kind of understand what they’re doing, you can go insert yourself in, right?

[00:29:05.140] – Jack Labriola

Absolutely, and I did that for another project, it was actually the grant project I worked on with the engineering people because we were thinking about a very particular population that has some medical sort of background to it. But engineering guy, doesn’t have a background in medicine. I don’t have a background in medicine, and so we start coming up with their ideas and we’re like cool we could test users like X, Y and Z, and I just sort of had to be like, well, if our users have this sort of medical condition, I don’t really know how that affects their experience with this particular product, so I said we need a medical person on the team.

[00:29:47.490] – Janice Summers


[00:29:48.420] – Jack Labriola

Because we could have just said, we’ll just make some assumptions, we’ll just say everybody is fine, everything’s fine, but it’s not the case. And so, again, I have to advocate for who those potential end users are, but I don’t have the expertise to truly advocate for them the way that they need, so I said, OK, let me look at my resources, let me see, again I don’t know a lot about this medical field, but I read a couple of things, you know I can pick out some keywords, and so I start to do very similar thing that my psychology colleague did to find me. I said, OK, let me start look at some of the faculty web pages. Well, there’s a lot of people in the school of nursing that looks like they haven’t completed their profile, so that’s not going to help me.

[00:30:30.600] – Jack Labriola

So I’m like, OK, and I just kind of went through the list, trying to find people that maybe came from a degree that sounded sort of similar or something like that. Or maybe I could find on Google Scholar a couple of their articles they’ve published and I sort of went through and did this research like a good technical communicator would, and I sort of sent out an email to three people that I sort of identified, like you could be potentially the perfect partner here, and I crafted my email to sort of explain what the project was, and not only that, but sort of explain what value I think they can add to our project.

[00:31:14.990] – Janice Summers


[00:31:16.090] – Jack Labriola

The value they can add to that conversation and sure enough, I sent out those three emails, one out of those three people was the exact person I was looking for. We have our meeting, we chat about things, and then all of a sudden it was a match made in heaven, it was perfect. So there are opportunities to do a little digging, do a little research and say, I want to do a project on Blank. I’m really passionate about it, I think it’d be really great, but I understand my own limitations, I’m going to do my job and make sure that we can advocate for the right people that end user, and I’m going to find someone who can and bring them in, bring them into of the project.

[00:31:52.310] – Janice Summers

And I think you brought up a really good point too as you explained to those three people as you were sending out an email. Why them?

[00:32:00.170] – Jack Labriola

Yeah, yeah.

[00:32:01.880] – Janice Summers

What value they would bring from your–because you haven’t talked to him yet, but you have a limited understanding of what potential value they could bring, but you’re helping them translate. I’m in the medical field, why do I want to talk to an engineer and a technical writer like–

[00:32:18.200] – Jack Labriola

Right, yeah right, and they’re on a completely different campus, so they don’t know what our degrees are and what we’re doing over here.

[00:32:26.570] – Janice Summers

Yeah, they’re like interfacing with organic organisms, like, yeah, I’m in the petri dish and look what?

[00:32:36.410] – Janice Summers

Right, and my engineering colleague is there putting things or wires into his breadboard and I’m over here looking at websites and apps and things like that right, why should I talk to you.

[00:32:45.710] – Janice Summers

Yeah, how does this come together to make ambrosia?

[00:32:50.720] – Jack Labriola

What was actually really great was that one of the other people I’d emailed, forwarded that email over to the person who ended up being the one that–because they were like, I don’t do exactly what you’re explaining, but I know someone who does and it just happened to be the same person, so it was great. But yeah, I think explaining that person’s value or what you see sort of the value added to your project is so huge because, more often than not, we’re always being asked to do something or being pulled in so many different directions, and I would want to if you’re asking me to be on your project, I want to really know how do I fit, how do I fit in, and is it just because you need my name on there or you need to see like my little department on there, like, oh, you just need someone from the School of nursing or something on here?

[00:33:41.750] – Janice Summers


[00:33:42.650] – Jack Labriola

And it’s like, no, I didn’t see a particular value in your expertise, here is sort of how your puzzle piece, your puzzle piece by piece fits into the larger puzzle of what we’re trying to do here. And I think that was really what sold it and really brings value. If someone sent me and email and said you know Jack, this is how I think your expertise and User Experience can be a benefit to our project, I would say I’m all ears, tell me more, let’s set up a meeting right, but if you just said you want to join this thing and I look at that title of your project and I’m like, don’t really see how a UX person fits in here, so I might say no, without even really having that opportunity to learn more or see what I could have done or the value I could have added.

[00:34:31.280] – Liz Fraley

It’s funny, we all do that and we don’t think about that often enough when we send an email to somebody else trying to get them involved.

[00:34:40.800] – Jack Labriola


[00:34:40.800] – Liz Fraley

We all have that reaction when somebody sends something to us.

[00:34:44.860] – Jack Labriola

That’s more of you just assume that whoever is sending you that invite has something to gain from you and maybe out of the goodness of your heart, you just agree and you’re like, yeah, I’ll help you out. But at the same time, I mean, there should be some benefit for both parties, and I think that being explicit in what that benefit is, obviously sets a great tone for sort of the partnership that you’re about to create, but I think really helps people make that decision on whether or not they want to be part of it.

[00:35:14.740] – Janice Summers

Well, they don’t have to work at trying to figure that out, it’s like you’re helping them understand what’s in it for me. It’s a human nature thing, really.

[00:35:26.680] – Liz Fraley

Make them work hard to figure out why you want them.

[00:35:29.710] – Janice Summers

Because they’re already working hard on what they’re doing right.

[00:35:34.240] – Jack Labriola


[00:35:34.450] – Janice Summers

You know, and we as individuals, it’s a human nature. We want to know what’s in it for me, why does this matter to me then it’s not a self centered or ego focused thing. It’s just the nature of who we are as a species.

[00:35:51.130] – Jack Labriola


[00:35:51.460] – Janice Summers

So we have to understand what is the benefit, because with everything in life, every person at every second is doing a cost benefit analysis.

[00:36:01.910] – Jack Labriola


[00:36:02.680] – Janice Summers

Like, it’s going to cost me something to talk to you. What’s my benefit, right, and that’s just natural. So as technical and professional communicators, we don’t need to have them understand where we add value, we know where we add value. We need to explain to them how our value benefits them right?

[00:36:24.350] – Jack Labriola


[00:36:24.350] – Janice Summers

So how their expertise and their abilities would benefit this and how it would benefit them first, right, that’s kind of what you are doing, as you are saying here’s what’s in it for you.

[00:36:37.240] – Jack Labriola


[00:36:37.240] – Janice Summers

Then let me explain more again about the project.

[00:36:41.950] – Jack Labriola

Because, you know, you mentioned like let’s say they were working with their petri dishes or something like that, and it was reversed, and they came to me and they say, hey, Jack, you want to come to my lab, here’s the title of my paper, Petri Dish 101. I’m going to look at them and say, well, I’ve never worked with Petri dishes before, so I think you’re asking the wrong person.

[00:37:03.310] – Janice Summers


[00:37:04.030] – Jack Labriola

But if you explain sort of, oh, well, there’s a gap here and we’re really trying to figure out you know we’re building the next great petri dish design, and we really think that if we talk to users and had your expertise, we could craft a better petri dish and all of a sudden start to say, I know exactly how I can help you, I’m already starting to maybe think of some ideas, so that when we do have our first meeting, our first conversation, like I’ve already started to think about how I can fit in here. So just if it doesn’t have to be a lot, just a little bit of how I can fit into this project, the benefit I can sort of gain from it. So all it takes is to get the conversation started.

[00:37:40.960] – Janice Summers

In a language that they understand.

[00:37:43.540] – Jack Labriola

Yes, absolutely.

[00:37:45.040] – Janice Summers


[00:37:45.460] – Liz Fraley

You’re a great collaborator. Seems like you like to talk and figure out things and learn the other languages of the other groups.

[00:37:55.990] – Jack Labriola

Yeah, absolutely, and I think it’s one of those things too, because techcomm, because UX is very much integrated in almost any discipline is that I don’t have a hard time finding how I may be able to fit into one of these other things right?

[00:38:13.180] – Liz Fraley


[00:38:13.830] – Jack Labriola

Oh, yeah of course, engineering, you probably don’t want to talk to users, I can see that right? Psychology, we want to figure out how can we make a product better or something like that, cool, let’s jump in there, right, I can easily find a way to get in there, even with a medical person you know, hey, ok, we have this documentation for, you know, this new product we’re working on, and I’m like, ok, we’re going to need a technical writer to come in there and try to explain this to the average layperson, so I think it’s really a great feel to being a technical communicator. And again, like we sort of mentioned at the beginning, even if you’re just doing a hint of User Experience, right, you’re almost valuable to any possible team or project or industry or field or whatever, as long as you want to put in the time or if it’s of interest to you and for me, I think I am lucky that I am very much interested in everything and sort of learning a little bit about things, but if there is something that you’re like, wow, I really wish I could have worked on this cool thing in biology or electrical engineering or something like that, I think Technical Communicators, go for it, there’s nothing that says that you shouldn’t try to have that first conversation and reach out.

[00:39:32.790] – Janice Summers


[00:39:33.540] – Jack Labriola

I think people would welcome the skill set, absolutely.

[00:39:36.690] – Janice Summers

And I think what it is, is some of these other fixed fields, I think that’s the beauty, one of the beauties of technical and professional communication is it’s not a fixed discipline, it touches everything in everyone’s life, I mean, it really does it crosses all boundaries, so it’s limitless. So I think rather than waiting for an invitation for a seat at the table, I think the ownership becomes for the technical and professional communicator to seek out those opportunities.

[00:40:12.430] – Janice Summers

Now, sometimes things are going to be dropped on your lap or somebody is going to knock on your door, right, but that’s not always the case. And I think it’s what your interests–just look at what’s going on and find out something that’s interesting and help them understand how you would benefit that project in order to–

[00:40:30.970] – Jack Labriola

That’s how the driving simulator project came to be. It was just something where my colleagues said we worked together on this one thing, you know, I kind of had this idea he never did any driving research either, but it was something that he was interested in, he’s like, you want to sort of tackle this journey together? And I was like that would be so cool to to find out the User Experience of driving a self-driving car. So I said, let’s do it, let’s go for it! There was nothing that was stopping us from pursuing that because if you tackle it from the psychological perspective on how people feel, the trust they have for a self-driving car, and I could start to think about how do we design a better interface or the takeover when the self-driving car says, hey, it’s getting a little dangerous out there, I’m going to give you control again, like what does that takeover request look like? There’s so much design that goes into that, too. And I was like, I’m fascinated by that. Let’s just go for it, let’s get out of our comfort zone and try something new.

[00:41:28.000] – Janice Summers


[00:41:29.260] – Liz Fraley

So that seems too a great way for practitioners who are trying to transition into the field or they’re trying to transition from like one mechanical engineering or whatever into API docs or into medical writing. It seems like a good way they can find either volunteer projects and say, hey, you’re not doing particularly well with your communication, I can help with that, you get a portfolio piece and you get new people that you’re working with had no idea that they even needed you.

[00:42:01.510] – Jack Labriola

Absolutely. And that was actually one of the benefits of teaming up with the engineering people and tackling it was a huge grant, unfortunately, we didn’t win, but, you know, there was a giant grant from the Department of Transportation. They put out this huge call for inclusive design, and all of a sudden that was a lightbulb in my head because I was like, OK, I can already see the benefit of some User Experience here, but what was great was there was opportunities for this individuals to sort of be like a free agent, like in sports, so I just put their name out there and say, I’m interested in this grant, I don’t have a team, here’s my skill set, I’m available if you need me. And people got picked up onto teams because, oh, we needed a programmer over here, oh, we needed a grant writer over here. So there are opportunities out there where the technical writers can say, you know what, let me see kind of what’s going on out there. Are there opportunities for me to just sort of throw my name in the free agent pool and see if I get picked up, I mean–

[00:43:07.090] – Janice Summers

Yeah, well, like what you did with your website, what you did with your faculty website, you put up your keywords is kind of like that. It’s like you can throw yourself out there and just find a field that you’re interested in and a project that you’re interested in, and that’s a great way to bridge yourself into a new discipline. And I don’t know that I would necessarily tell somebody, you know, you need help. Like, I don’t know that I would say like and I would keep it positive, like never say documentation sucks to win friends and influence people, don’t tell them their baby is ugly.

[00:43:52.880] – Jack Labriola

Absolutely, and that’s–but it’s true. And Liz, you know, the people that are trying to maybe jump to another field that is still very much in their skill set and their wheelhouse, but maybe they don’t have that portfolio piece or they don’t have that little extra line on the resume that could really help them transition to engineering writing or like some UX writing or medical writing or something like that. There could be opportunities out there where there are projects that are looking for writers that don’t know that they need you, right, they don’t know what they don’t know. And all of a sudden you sort of join the free agency pool here, you get picked up onto a team, that’s your opportunity to show your value and your worth and who knows what opportunities that then spawns after that.

[00:44:43.240] – Janice Summers

Where did you meet yourself Liz?

[00:44:45.280] – Liz Fraley

I don’t know, that’s when it’s exciting and fun, right, when there’s opportunity and you don’t know that it’s there until you’ve had that discussion.

[00:44:57.080] – Jack Labriola


[00:44:58.030] – Liz Fraley

Yeah, I love that. Cool.

[00:45:01.060] – Janice Summers

I think it’s funny, like for the person in the School of Psychology, thank goodness he found you so that you could translate for him

[00:45:11.260] – Jack Labriola

Yeah, yeah, and now it’s become a two year long partnership, and we need to get going we’re already thinking when we finish this first driver simulator study, we’re like, here’s the next one we’re going to do. We’re like we’re already thinking two, three, four years down the line now and now it’s becoming an incredible collaborative relationship. So I’m so thankful that he reached out and me reaching out to people in engineering and people in the school of nursing, we had so many meetings, even though we didn’t win that grant, we already started thinking whenever they send another grant project that’s similar to this, we’ve already got the team assembled, we already sort of know what our strengths are and what we can sort of bring to the table. So.

[00:45:48.550] – Liz Fraley


[00:45:49.330] – Janice Summers

And you don’t know what other projects you’re all going to get involved with because of that relationship, right, you might be pulled into something else. That’s another cool thing about when we talk about strategies for getting an invitation, right. So I think we’ve discussed several of them, but there’s the it’s always kind of paying for itself in perpetual motion. When you get involved and you get outside of your comfort zone and you get involved with other disciplines and other groups and you start being that translator between worlds.

[00:46:27.340] – Jack Labriola


[00:46:27.970] – Janice Summers

All of a sudden you’re pulled in. You’re not asking to be invited, you’re pulled in.

[00:46:33.960] – Liz Fraley


[00:46:33.960] – Janice Summers

And you’re getting emails from these upstart people and the School of Psychology or these people over in Biology, and you say, hmm well, do you know where I add value?

[00:46:48.520] – Jack Labriola

Right, because who knows, this one research project spawns a couple of conference presentations and then who knows who’s in an audience that wants to collaborate on something even in other universities or something. And it’s just the snowball effect. The possibilities are truly endless. You never know what that may spawn after that. But it is just taking that leap to say, hey, I’m interested in this thing. I’ve never done it before, let me figure out who I can talk to to really make this happen. Something that I’m passionate about, let’s go for it.

[00:47:20.590] – Liz Fraley

Wow, that’s been great. And we are way past our time, I’m like, whoa, wait.

[00:47:26.800] – Janice Summers

Oh, I’m sorry.

[00:47:28.210] – Liz Fraley

That’s amazing.

[00:47:29.380] – Janice Summers

We get into talking, I was just going to say so the biggest strategy to getting an invitation to the seat at the table is to invite yourself.

[00:47:40.270] – Jack Labriola

Yeah, but don’t show up empty handed, right. You got to explain the value that you add or that they may add to your project, so you bring some appetizers or–

[00:47:52.570] – Janice Summers

Right you’ve got to bring your dinner, you got to bring an appetizing dish for that group.

[00:47:58.830] – Jack Labriola


[00:48:01.990] – Janice Summers

So know the group, you don’t take steak to a vegan barbecue, so know the group, take the appropriate dish and you’ll be welcomed in.

[00:48:12.370] – Jack Labriola

With open arms.

[00:48:13.660] – Janice Summers

With open arms.

[00:48:15.520] – Janice Summers

Jack, it is just such a pleasure to talk to you.

[00:48:18.480] – Liz Fraley

It is.

[00:48:19.150] – Janice Summers

And I am so thrilled that you took time out of your schedule to come and be with us here in Room 42, and I hope we can have you back again.

[00:48:28.100] – Jack Labriola

Yeah, Thank you very much.

In this episode

Dr. Jack T. Labriola is an Assistant Professor of Technical Communication at Kennesaw State University, where he teaches usability testing, information architecture, and the senior capstone design course. He has researched, written, and presented on a variety of topics ranging from a co-edited collection, Content Strategy in Technical Communication with Routledge, to articles on minimalist design aesthetics and mobile user experience, to conference papers on university partnerships and building up student research toolkits. Dr. Labriola’s professional mission is to continue to discover opportunities to research and create better experiences for users in their day-to-day use of technology.

The messy world of research can offer you a unique opportunity to break out of your comfort network to expand your knowledge. It can also give you more career agility and, let’s face it, it makes things far more interesting.

In this episode of Room 42, we discuss strategies for searching and finding collaborative projects outside of your comfort zone. We also share practical ideas to help advocate for the value you bring to help colleagues in different disciplines see the importance of communication and user experience.

From technical communication and user experience to self-driving cars and psychology, we talk about the different opportunities that research has to offer.





KSU Faculty Page:

Jack’s Keyboard Study: This is currently under review at a journal right now! The citation/link will be here once it’s published.

Resources mentioned during the broadcast

As a follow up on the Free Agent Pool, Jack says:

This was a tangible thing for a grant proposal from the Department of Transportation’s Inclusive Design Challenge Grant project last year. There was an opportunity for you to register as an “individual” rather than a team, and then could try to find your way onto a project once things got going through their “Open Forum.”

Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design (1994, revised 2020)

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