Why Audience Contexts Matter to Content Creators

Room 42 is where practitioners and academics meet to share knowledge about breaking research. In this episode, Lisa Melonçon explains why should content creators care about audience contexts through the lens of patient education material design.

Airdate: July 22, 2020

Season 1 Episode 2 | 47 min

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Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:14.210] – Liz Fraley

Welcome to Room 42, I’m Liz Fraley from Single Sourcing Solutions, and I’ll be your moderator today. Janice Summers is our interviewer and welcome to Lisa Melonçon, our guest in Room 42. She’s a professor of technical and professional communication at the University of South Florida, and she’s looking forward to becoming the department chair in English and even in Health. She focuses on programmatic issues in technical and professional communication, as well as user experience in the health and medical settings. She’s here today to help us start answering the question, “why audience contexts matter to content creators.” Welcome, Lisa. 

[00:00:55.910] – Lisa Melonçon

Well, welcome back. It’s good to see everybody and be here with you all today. It’s delightful to sort of, be encouraged to think differently for different audiences, and the irony is that we’re talking about audiences today, so thank you so much for inviting me.

[00:01:12.360] – Janice Summers

Well, we’re excited to have you and I’m thrilled to be talking to you again, and one of the things you’re notorious for is your communication style.

[00:01:24.610] – Lisa Melonçon

 A little bit, yeah. 

[00:01:25.870] – Janice Summers

Yeah, and I love it. 

[00:01:29.620] – Lisa Melonçon

It’s direct and it’s not academic. 

[00:01:31.630] – Janice Summers

And I love it, just be you because that’s what this is all about, right?So one of the things when we talked the last time; you had a really interesting project that you have been working on and from that project stemmed some interesting insights on audience. So,

[00:01:50.830] – Lisa Melonçon


[00:01:50.980] – Janice Summers

Do you want to kind of, share a little bit with people who weren’t a part of that initial conversation?

[00:01:56.110] – Lisa Melonçon

 I would be delighted to. 

[00:01:58.000] – Janice Summers

Yeah, yeah.

[00:01:59.790] – Lisa Melonçon

So several years ago, Kirk St.Amant and I came up with this idea called The Attention Comprehension Gap, and what that was, is we realized, both in practice and in academic research that oftentimes folks are concerned with the look and feel of a document, the attention of it, and the visualizations that might be there, and so, “visualizations” in this sense is something like a bar graph. Or, they were on the other side, worried about comprehension, “do the readers actually understand the thing?” But much academic research and workplace research never brought the two together to figure out what happens in the middle.

[00:02:38.650] – Janice Summers


[00:02:39.700] – Lisa Melonçon

And so, we came up with this weird little theory called the Attention Comprehension Gap, and then that morphed into a larger project; to look at patient education materials, and when I use “patient education materials,” I use this term broadly for those things that you oftentimes might get when you’re leaving outpatient surgery; on how to take care of yourself. 

[00:03:05.340] – Janice Summers


[00:03:05.460] – Lisa Melonçon

 It could be an overview of how to take care of a new medication regime.

[00:03:10.980] – Janice Summers

And these are like instructional things that…

[00:03:12.840] – Lisa Melonçon

 Yes, partially. They’re either instructional… 

[00:03:16.380] – Janice Summers

You need someone to understand,

[00:03:18.410] – Lisa Melonçon


[00:03:19.010] – Janice Summers

 What to do next, It’s not necessarily, you know, the information that’s on a package of a cough syrup or something like that. This is like, “I need to explain some things to you, and it’s really important that you understand it.”

[00:03:31.820] – Lisa Melonçon

 Yes, and so it’s either instructional or informational or a combination of the two. 

[00:03:36.690] – Janice Summers


[00:03:36.930] – Lisa Melonçon

 And so, what we originally did at the University of Cincinnati, which is where I was before I moved to South Florida, we were approached by the health department on campus and in coordination with the local health department in the city of Cincinnati to try to figure out a way to help young people 18 to 25 understand information about sexually transmitted infections and diseases, because unbeknownst to many people in the population, probably, is we have a massive rise of STIs in that age group, and this could be a direct result of a lot of things. But my working theory is a move away from very directed sexual education in high schools. And so they, students hit college, and the freedom of that leads to a massive increase on college campuses, and so we started, through a class that I was teaching in the professional writing program, we tried to come up with an in-depth way to figure out audiences more than we typically do and to create information about STIs for college-age students. And what we ended up doing is, we learned from that project on several campuses, two very important things. We understood, that as a field, both academics and working professionals in technical communication and in content creation and UX, we need to understand what we mean by audience better, and we need better and more involved ways to really get at what an audience needs.

[00:05:24.940] – Janice Summers

Right, because one of the things about you is, you have both practitioner and an educator, but you have a very interesting background? 

[00:05:35.900] – Lisa Melonçon


[00:05:36.550] – Janice Summers

 In this rarefied position that you get to bridge that gap, right?

[00:05:41.230] – Lisa Melonçon

I worked for almost 20 years before I got my Ph.D. and I still consult several times a year in very specific projects, to keep my skills fresh in the world. So, yes, it does give me the opportunity to sit in this kind of in-between spot and to help figure out how we can make academic research work better for practitioners. And what we learned about audience is that we need to do a better job of depth of audience analysis and a lot of that depth of audience analysis is key to this other term that comes up a lot, context. And so, as a technical writer or a content creator, we all know that we’re writing to a specific audience for a specific purpose, right?

[00:06:30.820] – Janice Summers

You should. If you don’t, you should. 

[00:06:30.830] – Lisa Melonçon


[00:06:37.220] – Janice Summers

The number one question when you’re sitting down to write, who am I writing for? Right?  Because that’s what you’re supposed to be doing. 

[00:06:44.370] – Lisa Melonçon

But now an equally important question is why? Or what are they going to do with it?

[00:06:50.510] – Janice Summers


[00:06:51.490] – Liz Fraley

Why are they there? 

[00:06:52.690] – Lisa Melonçon

Yes, and to the audience and purpose combined out of rhetorical theory ends up being the context or the rhetorical situation. And what we figured out in this project is we oftentimes, as writer information designers, we forget to really look at purpose or the context as deeply as we do the audience. And so we’re sitting there, we’re gathering all the information about audience from relevant demographics; if they matter, their background, what may they know? What’s potentially the reading comprehension level of them? How can we use headings to break things up to visually cue things for easy scanning? So we’re thinking of all those things based on sort of, this audience, but we also need to ask just as complicated and nuanced questions when it comes to where might they be using this information. 

[00:07:47.620] – Janice Summers


[00:07:49.090] – Lisa Melonçon

 And to what end? And what might be in the way of that purpose and that context? And we determined this in a really interesting way because of, using a class to help with research sometimes is great because in this case, the students were pretty close to the same demographic of the audience. But what that also showed us is that some of our assumptions, even about themselves or the people sitting next to them weren’t fully gathering all of the pieces that we needed and what ended up mattering most was the context of use. So, to give students on campus information about STIs in the waiting room to where they could pick up a pamphlet or a brochure. Not going to happen, they weren’t going to pick it up.

[00:08:40.050] – Liz Fraley

In the waiting room?

[00:08:41.240] – Lisa Melonçon

 Yeah, and why wouldn’t you think they’d pick it up? Because somebody might see them. 

[00:08:46.190] – Janice Summers


[00:08:48.390] – Lisa Melonçon


[00:08:48.620] – Janice Summers

But then it makes sense.

[00:08:51.750] – Lisa Melonçon

It makes sense absolutely, after the fact. One of the things that we found were like, “no duh.”

[00:08:56.910] – Janice Summers


[00:08:57.990] – Lisa Melonçon

After the fact. 

[00:08:59.600] – Janice Summers

After, yeah. 

[00:09:00.930] – Lisa Melonçon

Right, and so then, bring in the “no duh”  upfront allowed us, the second time we did it, we had much better results because we moved it into the actual rooms.

[00:09:13.860] – Janice Summers

 Where they could discreetly pick it up.

[00:09:16.530] – Lisa Melonçon

And then that added into other testing materials about whether, or how much they actually understood. And the big takeaways for us that we wanted, that our partners wanted us to really find out is what would encourage them, one: to go to seek more information or to seek treatment.

[00:09:39.150] – Janice Summers


[00:09:40.800] – Lisa Melonçon

And finally, where they went. Because we also found that while the health clinic on campus, very comprehensive information, a lot of comprehensive services, students aren’t going to go there necessarily. They may start there, but they’re not going to stay there. And all of those parts about context and purpose came out as we were trying to figure out audience, and what that showed us from a research standpoint is, that we really need better methods on how to do this and to be more aware in setting up the two parts together from the very beginning. And that has led to a project to where we expanded kind of, a heuristic on how to gather information around personas and it also has led to this new sort of, working theory called Micro-Contexts, to where instead of thinking broadly about purpose, “oh, we want to inform people” well, we want to inform people where and for why and bringing it further down to the micro level of this specific interaction, particularly in health and medical settings, you’re really talking about specific interactions that are going to take place in a specific place.

[00:11:02.470] – Janice Summers

Right, right.

[00:11:03.300] – Lisa Melonçon

And so, that’s kind of the big thing boiled way down, and the interesting thing about academic research that folks may or may not know is, it’s good and bad in the sense that, I would have never been able to do this kind of in-depth project with multiple iterations of testing and levels of research to where one informed the next. 

[00:11:26.490] – Janice Summers

Right. This took a series of long years?

[00:11:29.010] – Lisa Melonçon


[00:11:29.100] – Janice Summers

This is a long study, so it took a long time. It’s not like, you know, “quick, I threw up a questionnaire and got some answers.”

[00:11:36.010] – Lisa Melonçon

Right. It’s totally longitudinal. And in academia, we have the space to do that, which is a positive. The negative of it is we have the space to do that, and the other pressures of our jobs is sometimes it takes forever to get things written up and then tried to disseminate back out into the world. And that second part is what’s really bogging us down right now, because we have a ton of data to write up that would inform and lay out, “here’s how you do these things if you have this kind of project. Here’s how this, in health and medical settings, could switch over to content creation for almost anything.” But,

[00:12:13.410] – Janice Summers

But it’s that, it’s condensing all of that and getting it written up. And I’ve heard that from a lot of people. That’s really where the biggest challenge comes from, is trying to condense all of that and then get it written. 

[00:12:27.660] – Lisa Melonçon

Yeah, and it comes down to time and energy, until before everybody joined us, I was talking about the fact that I’d moved institutions and, in moving to my new institution, I do more administrative work. And what that means is, I have less time to actually put my butt in the chair and write. And then it’s very different also, figuring out, going back to this weird term, audience is, what’s the best way to get some of our information back out to the audiences who needs it? And in this case, I don’t think it’s academic research.

[00:13:05.730] – Janice Summers


[00:13:06.150] – Lisa Melonçon

And that that’s another challenge in trying to write it up and to do things. And, I don’t have a good answer right now, but I know I need to and I want to, which is why I was glad to be able to talk about it today. Oftentimes if I can say something out loud. I can really get down to it, to the “nuggets” yes. 

[00:13:25.750] – Janice Summers

Oftentimes it gets manifested when it’s like you’re claiming it,

[00:13:29.860] – Lisa Melonçon

Yes, I was hopeful this could,

[00:13:32.360] – Janice Summers

 And you have a way.

[00:13:33.750] – Lisa Melonçon

 Inspire me to, you know, manifest it, break it down and then make the time over the next month to just start to write it up. So I’m using this as inspiration. 

[00:13:43.800] – Janice Summers

Yeah, good. And I hope it does inspire you to get this congealed and into something that’s written and into practitioners hands as well.

[00:13:55.410] – Lisa Melonçon

Yes, and that’s really what I want at this point in my career, I’m a full professor, which means there’s no other promotion for me, I’m done. And what that also means is that you even have more flexibility to do kind of, what you want, and so nobody is going to sit and say, “Lisa, you have to put all of this information into academic journals for academics.” They won’t, and so at this point, it’s just strategizing the best way, the best medium and modality and what it should look like to get it on out into the world, but absolutely, I would love more of some of the work that I’m doing now to be circled back into practitioner’s hands.

[00:14:39.390] – Janice Summers

Yeah, I think I was reading one of your articles and I forget which one it was. It’s on your website, which, by the way, folks, she’s got a website, I suggest you go look at it. I think in one of the articles, you were writing that one of the challenges oftentimes, you’re in this thing of writing for other Academe, you’re caught on that treadmill of having to do things for academic reasons. 

[00:15:03.320] – Lisa Melonçon


[00:15:03.880] – Janice Summers

And that desire to break that habit and actually pull in practitioners as well and bridge that gap between academia and practitioners. And it was in one of your articles, I forget which one it was.

[00:15:17.630] – Lisa Melonçon

It’s been a theme in my entire academic career because I still do consult and I’ve long been an active member of STC and I remain that way because our academic programs, where people are getting a degree in technical and professional communication, they can’t be disconnected from the world of work. And so it’s important for me. I always took the stance that it was important, that I needed to know what was going on. And then if you expand that into the actual research around things like patient experience, design, it also means you always have to think, “how can people actually use these sort of theoretical concepts?” or “what do practitioners need most?” type of thing.

[00:16:00.130] – Janice Summers

Right, right. So now one of the questions is how did you address the differences? Back to the longitudinal study, how did you address the differences in the audience personas?

[00:16:18.400] – Lisa Melonçon

What we ended up doing, we craft it like many personas, you’re going to try to find commonalities that hit as many users or audiences as you can. So for us, what we tried to do was to figure out what the biggest barriers were.

[00:16:38.530] – Janice Summers


[00:16:39.640] – Lisa Melonçon

So it became clear early on that our problem was not only, informing college-aged students about STIs and how to protect themselves or get treatment, but the biggest issue was the stigma attached to STIs and sexual education and these things that we don’t talk about out loud. So what we did in building our personas, we based that on a lot of interviews and then our personas became those things. Like oftentimes people use them as our touch points and so, not every person on the team could participate in every interview, and so our personas also became these kind of stand-ins and they focused on what ended up being our primary research questions, which is sometimes not how personas are used in the workplace, because it’s much more rapid deployment. But for us they became these rich ways of laying out a variety of barriers and finding the ones that were most common. I can’t address every audience, even as an academic researcher. There’s absolutely no way, we don’t have the time, energy or money.

[00:17:42.950] – Janice Summers

I don’t think anybody could. 

[00:17:44.190] – Lisa Melonçon

 Yeah, so,

[00:17:45.370] – Janice Summers

 It’s just not realistic, right?

[00:17:46.450] – Lisa Melonçon

 Totally not realistic. 

[00:17:48.090] – Janice Summers

You have to pick a segment and use that as the ideal and then you have outliers and you’ll pick up outliers, right?

[00:17:55.870] – Lisa Melonçon

 So, what we ended up doing was trying to find the biggest segment and addressing the most common barriers, and it ended up being where we focused on, I think, four common barriers that almost everybody said. And everybody, in this sense, are not only the specific audience of college-aged students, 18 to 25, but it was also, we interviewed health professionals, a nurse, the director of the health center, the health director for the city of Cincinnati, and a counselor. I don’t know, there were like seven or eight different working professionals that the students also interviewed and all of that information that came together, we analyzed it even to begin with, before we ever wrote a word, before we wrote a word we did all of that work.

[00:18:51.980] – Janice Summers


[00:18:54.720] – Lisa Melonçon

Yeah, and in the workplace, that’s normally done kind of simultaneously, you’re writing the words while you’re doing it and editing, but in this sort of project, you can stretch it out so that you can start to get at some of that nuance and really push how we do things better.

[00:19:10.200] – Janice Summers

Right, right. So now how did you measure the success at the back end of this? I guess, like was it the number of pamphlets picked up? Reduced sexually transmitted diseases? What was?

[00:19:26.570] – Lisa Melonçon

 In this case, it’s an unsatisfactory answer, but I’m going to tell you, the folks at the health center on campus really appreciated the shift in the way information was delivered, like moving their pamphlets inside, but also updating them and when we gave them the feedback from all of the different user tests. And so our measure of success was, that they were satisfied. Because honest to goodness, we did it. We did it through a semester, and so for folks that don’t know, a semester is typically 16 weeks or four months. We went from, “you’re learning everything” to doing a report to the health center on campus. We went a little into the summer, and so I ended up delivering everything in probably about the fourth week of the summer. But students ended up working an extra few weeks, almost half the class did. And so they were satisfied and that’s how we did it. And I should probably follow up with them and see what’s going on up there. But then we also delivered some of the same information to the city.

[00:20:36.800] – Janice Summers

Follow up, yeah. 

[00:20:37.340] – Lisa Melonçon

Yeah. So it wasn’t a great measure, but that sometimes also happens in academic research. It’s more difficult to close the loop all the way around, because as a professor, I’m having to then plan the next course, which may not be able to continue the project. The students, half of that class graduated, if not, over half. And then the others just went about their lives and so that part is kind of not so great.

[00:21:05.430] – Janice Summers

And I mean, isn’t that like reality, though?

[00:21:08.750] – Lisa Melonçon

 Yes, you’re right.

[00:21:09.610] – Janice Summers

Right, nobody lives in a pristine clinical environment where everything is nice and closed and packaged up nicely. I mean, a lot of times and in practice, the world of the practitioner, it’s “ok, I’ve got less complaints.” Right? Or, you know, if you’re really tracking if you’re doing online help, “ok, I see they’re clicking through where I expect them to go,” right?  “I’m seeing the traffic is flowing the way it should flow. I see they’re bouncing out where they’re supposed to bounce.” You know, there’s all these different things. It’s like, you’re not going to necessarily always have the time to wrap things up nicely because time is an issue definitely in the practitioner’s world, right?

[00:21:50.990] – Lisa Melonçon


[00:21:51.650] – Janice Summers

 And it’s even an issue in your world, even though you can take a longer time.

[00:21:55.520] – Lisa Melonçon

It’s a different emphasis, emphasis of time. 

[00:21:59.810] – Janice Summers

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

[00:22:02.310] – Lisa Melonçon

As Michelle Souris would say, “it percolates differently.” 

[00:22:05.750] – Janice Summers

So you tried this study in one university, right? 

[00:22:10.300] – Lisa Melonçon

We did it, we did at the University of Cincinnati. What led into part of the context issue was when we attempted to do it at another institution and the students basically just shut down and refused to participate.

[00:22:27.800] – Janice Summers

Which is very interesting. 

[00:22:31.820] – Lisa Melonçon

Which is fine, you can’t force them and that taught us a lot just in that failure. And it was really that failure that started the whole thinking of, what do we have to do differently? Because we’ve done due diligence with my students at Cincinnati, talked to a lot of folks and you know, we were feeling pretty good about ourselves. And it’s like, okay, it’s ready to try it somewhere else. 

[00:22:55.790] – Janice Summers

We crossed all the T’s and dotted all the I’s, its a go. 

[00:22:56.000] – Lisa Melonçon

And we even did it with a small student group at another university, an LGBTQ, a student QAI plus student group at another university and they were very open and they followed the sort of, the same protocols and that was sort of like our small little test point. And then when we moved it to an entirely different university, a different state,

[00:23:21.470] – Janice Summers

An example of context, right?

[00:23:22.160] – Lisa Melonçon

 Right. It totally didn’t work. Yeah.

[00:23:24.560] – Janice Summers

 Well, but both of them, even the one that was very open and receptive and participative. 

[00:23:31.570] – Lisa Melonçon


[00:23:32.840] – Janice Summers

Context, right?

[00:23:33.470] – Lisa Melonçon

And that’s why we started the whole idea of a micro-context and thinking through, all universities really aren’t the same. Of course they’re not, but if you’re moving quick, you’re going to go, “ok, universities, context, purpose, let’s roll.” Yeah, not necessarily.

[00:23:51.930] – Janice Summers

Right, right. So, again, it’s that, taking everything into consideration. So, you know, the location of those people and the cultural differences and the cultural norms are different in different areas.

[00:24:09.530] – Lisa Melonçon

Yes, and with this goes into, you know, another big body of research about cultural factors of information and information design specifically, and then feeds directly into cognitive work around how we process information. 

[00:24:28.420] – Janice Summers


[00:24:29.460] – Lisa Melonçon

And one of the great things about the patient experience design study is, we were also able to develop a new usability test method. So, DeJong and Schellens has, years ago put out an empirically based study called Plus Minus, and it was a text-based usability method that was sort of, key to comprehension, really more so to readability and just how people were able to kind of, gather the big idea. And we took that method because we wanted to really look at the visualization and visual cues. So we, as technical communicators and content creators, are all about integrating document design principles to help people find information and roll through it, scanning, take a heading, for instance. So when I’m talking about document design it’s like simple things like heading and whitespace. But we don’t really have a lot of research, very, very teeny weeny amounts that help you understand if those visual cues, the attention helps with the comprehension, and so we added a check. So, DeJong and Schellens has a Plus Minus. And what they do is, they ask people to read and you put a plus of around things that you think you understand and a minus around things that you don’t. We added a check around specific ideas of document design, and you can do this text-based in person or you can do a text-based, even done, or delivered digitally. 

[00:26:03.130] – Janice Summers


[00:26:03.720] – Lisa Melonçon

And then we also added a cognitive component called anti-priming, and so in cognitive theory, you can prime people to sort of, look through and hits all of their prototypes and their existing scripts. This is Kirk St.Amant’s big area. And so I’m not doing it justice at all, but what it means is that we all think and process information kind of the same way, and we start with things we already know. And so, if you understand what they already know and you want people to learn something different, we posited this theory that, if we upset that by going the opposite of priming, what happens? And what we found is that anti-priming kind of works too, and adding that check specific to document design and visual elements also works. Particularly if you turn off, we have a pausing mechanism that Schellens and DeJong didn’t do as well. But we ask readers to pause and we change topics. We go from reading about STIs and we also tested things around high blood pressure for the 55+ audience at the same time. Anyway, we ask readers to stop and they turn things over, they turn off their machines, and then we just sit like we’re doing a little small talk about the weather. Whatever happens to be on their mind. 

[00:27:27.810] – Janice Summers

It’s a Monty Python effect, and now for something completely different?

[00:27:30.740] – Lisa Melonçon

Yeah, yeah. And what it does, It resets your brain. 

[00:27:35.240] – Janice Summers


[00:27:35.670] – Lisa Melonçon

And then we go back and before they flip, flip back and go back to the test, we ask what they remember and what they don’t. And then that’s recorded separately and then we just keep moving through it, and so the Plus Minus check in the way that we also turn things on and off.

[00:27:52.650] – Janice Summers


[00:27:54.480] – Lisa Melonçon

 It is a new sort of, it’s a new useability method that’s directly tied to cognition and it works. So I can assure you that if it’s done correctly, you’re going to get information about what readers really understood from an attention and a comprehension standpoint. 

[00:28:13.010] – Janice Summers


[00:28:13.650] – Liz Fraley

 I found one of their papers, it’s from ’98, in IEEE, a professional communication conference, that’s the one? 

[00:28:21.150] – Lisa Melonçon

It’s one of the ones, I have no doubt.

[00:28:23.300] – Liz Fraley

Ok,  I will get more links from you then, after. 

[00:28:25.910] – Lisa Melonçon

 I will be happy to send them to you.

[00:28:28.260] – Liz Fraley


[00:28:29.870] – Lisa Melonçon

Because Menno has been great, Menno DeJong. When we ran into him actually, at a recent IEEE conference four or three years ago and we said, “hey, Menno, we’re taking Plus Minus and we’ve done something else with it, we’ve added a check,” and we talked all the way through it, and it’s always great to talk to people who’ve done research that you’re building on. And some of his insights that didn’t end up being in published literature were very helpful in the way we set up our own study.

[00:29:00.380] – Liz Fraley


[00:29:03.700] – Lisa Melonçon

Yeah, and so that’s the cool part of doing academic research, it’s finding the really,

[00:29:11.860] – Liz Fraley


[00:29:13.010] – Lisa Melonçon

To have the “ah ha” moments. And in particular, if you can work with students on some of these projects too, it’s great to see how you’re reading about those ideal situations. You know, you were talking about, Janice, we don’t live in that ideal world, but oftentimes and in classes, you sort of, you read about that or here’s how it would be perfect and then the students have to then figure out on their own when they hit the workplace, and it’s like, “oh.”  So, these sorts of products integrated into a class allow them immediately to put, quote, “theory into practice” and see the messy middle and how you navigate through that.

[00:29:49.930] – Janice Summers

Right. Right. So, one of the questions I have is like, your study was over a long period of time, so how did things evolve? How did the context evolve or change? Or did it, over the time span?

[00:30:04.380] – Lisa Melonçon

 The context of the research? Or the context of the- oh, OK. So, the context of the research has shifted in really those old school iterative ways. And so, what ended up happening is, we took whatever our results were first, and then we implemented them and then we found out what happened. And in our case, we were pretty lucky to just be able to build. There were a couple of things that ended up getting pushed to the side. So, the position of a caption, amazingly, initially in the first two small user tests we did, that seemed to bother people, and so we moved that shit around and then the next thing, nobody cares. So, that was just sort of, pushed to the side. We quit worrying about where the hell the caption was, but other things are important, like the size of the headings, how close the visual was to where the explanation is in the text, as to whether or not people remember it. Most everybody’s going to remember there was a visual in there, but how it’s talked about and labeled outside of the captions, like what the title is,

[00:31:10.910] – Janice Summers


[00:31:11.460] – Lisa Melonçon

And the colors that are used oftentimes can help people not only remember, but remember what it was talking about.

[00:31:19.710] – Janice Summers


[00:31:20.510] – Lisa Melonçon

And so the context, Janice, to answer your question more directly is, it was iterative. And so the research context, let us keep turning things back into improving that thing that we were working on. And at this point, after we delivered it to the health center at the University of Cincinnati, when I moved here, I’ve started to do the same process again. And at this point, I’m just testing our test to find out what we found so that we can move to the next stage of putting out something around effective practices or heuristic, these are the things you should probably consider, right? To bring those ideas that we now know, like, “of course, you should have thought of that” up front going, “you make sure you need to think of this, this, and this,” upfront. 

[00:32:14.220] – Janice Summers


[00:32:14.740] – Lisa Melonçon

Don’t assume it. Bring it up. And so, that’s kind of how it’s changed. And so, what I’ve been working on here at South Florida is sort of, just testing those initial results to make sure that they still hold, so that then we can move to something around effective practices. 

[00:32:33.830] – Janice Summers


[00:32:34.990] – Liz Fraley


[00:32:35.090] – Lisa Melonçon

And it also helped us, the other big change is just the audiences. So, moving from different locations has also started to build a richer set of data around what can be transferred culturally, socially, from different areas in this age group. So, for instance, the small test that we did with the LGBTQAI Student Group; because many folks in that demographic have had to look very closely at their own identities, particularly their sexual identities, they are much more willing to have more explicit information given to them. 

[00:33:25.060] – Janice Summers


[00:33:26.440] – Lisa Melonçon

So, again, this is one of those “no duh” moments. Of course, after you see all the results, it kind of makes sense. You can logically deduce that.

[00:33:34.660] – Janice Summers


[00:33:36.080] – Lisa Melonçon

 But even those groups have limits as to how far you can push the information. And so, then when you put them next to a very conservative group of students, you can start to find a spot in the middle to where you can produce like, the one sort of handout, the one sort of, “here are the other places outside of campus that you can go to get help,” and “what you can find, and what you can expect.” And so, thinking, using audiences, so you wanted to know how they evolved. Using audiences in the different contexts and then putting them together has also helped us figure out, kind of, what the next steps of research are and how to limit our findings. If that makes sense. 

[00:34:24.110] – Janice Summers

 Yeah, absolutely.

[00:34:26.740] – Liz Fraley

 Now for that, could we get a little preview? 

[00:34:31.750] – Lisa Melonçon

You know, the other challenge of moving a location is, you have to build up your community networks again, and so I was really lucky at Cincinnati. I built those pretty quickly. And here in South Florida, Tampa is huge, for those of you who don’t know, it is really big. 

[00:34:52.030] – Janice Summers

Really big, we were just out there.

[00:34:54.520] – Lisa Melonçon

So, where I’m working now on building partnerships, and so, there is a youth health clinic in Ybor that I’m trying to figure out how we can find a common ground. So, one of my own personal stances is, “well, I think my research is cool and interesting. It doesn’t have to be to everybody,” right? And so while I think we could really help this particular organization, we have to find how we can do that in a mutually beneficial way. And so, I’m building relationships right now. But when we did this, just on campus with a small set of students, we’ve already gotten some interesting preliminary results about confirmation of some of the things that we’ve already found. And so, the groups here in Tampa, it was interesting, that they brought together aspects of the other four distinct audience groups that we’ve already tested. 

[00:35:55.360] – Liz Fraley


[00:35:57.200] – Lisa Melonçon

And I think, yeah, my hypothesis and I got nothing outside of a, you know, a niggle in my gut about it. Is that because Tampa is so big and it is culturally diverse? That even when we bring in the small student groups, you’re picking up parts of all of these other groups that were a little more homogenous?

[00:36:16.430] – Janice Summers


[00:36:17.450] – Liz Fraley


[00:36:19.130] – Lisa Melonçon

It’s fascinating. I don’t know where that’s going to go, but that’s what I got at this minute. 

[00:36:23.890] – Liz Fraley

Well, and that’s part of the fun.

[00:36:25.760] – Janice Summers

 That is part of the fun. 

[00:36:26.910] – Liz Fraley


[00:36:27.650] – Janice Summers

 So I have a question for you. So, you’re a practitioner because I always like to tie, 

[00:36:32.900] – Lisa Melonçon


[00:36:33.620] – Janice Summers

..academia to a practitioner, how would a practitioner go about gathering audience context information? Like, you know, “I’m an author. How do I gather some of this information?” Maybe it’s a little less formal, but how would I start integrating context into my practice?

[00:36:56.510] – Lisa Melonçon

That is an excellent question and I’m formulating what I hope is a half-assed good answer. You want to start at the end, oftentimes at the end result, which is kind of counterintuitive to one: how we work in the workplace. But at the end is, where will those folks likely use that content? That is the end. Will they be on an iPad in the middle of a field? Why do I use that weird ass example, is because my brother-in-law who runs the family farm and is the biggest technophobe I’ve ever met in my life, I almost fell out of my chair last summer when he was talking about; he needed a new iPad to bring to the field. And I went, “what? Take a step back.”  And he said,” yeah, I’ve been using the iPad in the field for when something goes wrong with the tractor.”

[00:38:03.470] – Liz Fraley


[00:38:04.160] – Lisa Melonçon

But he brings up the manuals on an iPad.

[00:38:07.550] – Janice Summers


[00:38:08.100] – Lisa Melonçon

In the field. Now, it was not only shocking because it’s my brother-in-law, but the other part was, is that it actually fed into all of this thinking that I’m thinking about. So, dude is in the field and the only time he’s going to bring out that iPad is if something goes wrong, which means it’s going to be hot. He’s probably already crawled under something and it’s going to be dirty. 

[00:38:37.400] – Janice Summers

He’s going to be angry. 

[00:38:38.640] – Lisa Melonçon

He’s going to be pissed off. 

[00:38:40.070] – Janice Summers

Yes, exactly.

[00:38:41.720] – Lisa Melonçon

So that is the end.

[00:38:43.000] – Janice Summers

 Probably using some expletives?

[00:38:44.790] – Lisa Melonçon

 Yeah. So that’s the micro context at the end. Now, those folks at John Deere, I don’t know if they ever considered that and I don’t think they have, because the way that shit comes up on the iPad just makes the situation worse.

[00:38:58.850] – Janice Summers

Uh oh.

[00:39:00.350] – Lisa Melonçon

 Because it’s hard to read and if your hands are dirty, you can’t expand the screen. 

[00:39:05.390] – Janice Summers

Yeah, yeah, exactly.

[00:39:08.120] – Lisa Melonçon


[00:39:10.010] – Janice Summers

Bring some sink and soap out there to wash his hands nicely.  

[00:39:13.490] – Lisa Melonçon

 So, I’m not picking on my brother in law but this is just another example to what you’re talking about Janice, is how can we do it better? You got to think to the end, how are people likely going to be using it? And for a lot of our documentation, folks only get to it when something’s already gone wrong. And if we forget that, we forget that they are already annoyed.

[00:39:36.150] – Janice Summers

Yeah, right. Right. Yeah.

[00:39:38.730] – Lisa Melonçon

And all of that plays into how they’re going to respond to what you’ve written and we should be thinking about it, and how can we make it easier for them to overcome that angst and find what they need super quick?

[00:39:52.670] – Janice Summers


[00:39:53.210] – Lisa Melonçon

 Right? And so, this is where good search terms might come into play. Chunking of information becomes even more important. The descriptive heading instead of you know, I always use

[00:40:05.720] – Liz Fraley


[00:40:06.410] – Lisa Melonçon

Yeah, yeah, overview not useful. Overview to what?

[00:40:12.400] – Janice Summers

Why use so many words? 

[00:40:15.150] – Lisa Melonçon

Yes. And so,

[00:40:17.420] – Janice Summers

 I don’t have time to read all this. Yeah.

[00:40:20.180] – Lisa Melonçon

So that’s the first thing Janice, and I think if we start there at the micro-context and then go backward as to, what are we also overcoming? Going back to those ideas of what barriers are going to be in the way? And then how can we address those by using things that we already know? 

[00:40:37.260] – Janice Summers


[00:40:37.530] – Lisa Melonçon

And so another “no duh” moment is, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. So we’re sitting there doing research, people try to think of, “oh, how can we make this more appealing?” And it’s like, we don’t need to make it more appealing. We just need to make it useful. 

[00:40:50.840] – Janice Summers

More useful, more practical. 

[00:40:52.410] – Lisa Melonçon

Yeah, and so we can draw on all that stuff we already do well, we know how to use a heading, we just have to remember to use one.

[00:41:00.140] – Janice Summers

Yeah, right. And here’s an interesting thing, so we’re out of time, 

[00:41:10.190] – Lisa Melonçon


[00:41:10.200] – Janice Summers

Dang it, But here’s the thing is oftentimes  we get, as in the field of technical writing, we’re taught, “remove emotion” right? We’re not supposed to be impassioned. It’s just the facts, “blah, blah, blah,” all of the information. But the interesting thing is, when you’re thinking in terms of context, it’s good to have a little theatre background, right? It’s almost like you have to imagine, put yourself like, when you talk about your brother-in-law, imagine you’re that person.

[00:41:39.620] – Lisa Melonçon


[00:41:40.160] – Janice Summers

Right? How are you feeling? What are you thinking? How has your day been? What’s the weather like outside, right? All of these other aspects that go into,and now look at the documentation, you know? How does it feel, right? 

[00:41:54.910] – Lisa Melonçon

 The weird thing about techcomm being objective, and we’re supposed to let go of the passion and all of that. I’ve always,

[00:42:03.440] – Janice Summers

 Passion, but you know, 

[00:42:04.720] – Lisa Melonçon

No, I know exactly what you’re talking about, though. The thing that’s always kind of annoyed me about that is, one: we’re not objective. The reason that we do this job is because we’re passionate about information and content and helping other people find what they need and do what they need, right? That’s the essence of the job that we do. And most of us are in it because we are passionate about information and helping folks. 

[00:42:29.480] – Janice Summers


[00:42:29.730] – Lisa Melonçon

And then the flip of that is, most of our audiences, no matter what you’re producing, at that moment, nothing is more important to them than that.

[00:42:39.260] – Janice Summers


[00:42:40.890] – Liz Fraley


[00:42:41.470] – Lisa Melonçon

Which is embedded with emotion and passion and all of the other stuff and it’s not objective. And so this whole notion that techcom is objective is horse shit from the get go, and it gets in the way of us creating more usable information and it also gets in the way of forcing us to look at ways we can use documentation and policy to create better organizations and more just and equitable information to feed into larger issues of social issues, which is important.

[00:43:16.010] – Janice Summers


[00:43:16.380] – Lisa Melonçon

 But I get it. You know, it’s one thing that I might end up doing right before I retire, is to write some sort of manifesto about it, all about emotions. 

[00:43:27.780] – Janice Summers

Technical writing is passion.

[00:43:32.750] – Lisa Melonçon

Damn it. I like that, “technical writing is passion,” comma, “damn it,” exclamation point. 

[00:43:38.410] – Janice Summers

Right, got to do the exclamation point. Oh, my God, it’s been so much fun talking to you. 

[00:43:43.170] – Lisa Melonçon

Oh, it’s been a ball. 

[00:43:44.380] – Janice Summers

I could talk to you forever, but I know you’re busy too, taking on more responsibility, but I hope you can come back some time.

[00:43:52.190] – Lisa Melonçon

I’m happy to come back anytime and just sit around and chat. I love this and I want to give you all big props because I think we need more of this in the field. I use “field” here as the big “techcomm, UX, content field.” Yeah, we need more of the talking to just find out what folks are doing and what little nuggets are out there. And this has inspired me, I’m going to put up a blog with like, three important points.

[00:44:20.840] – Janice Summers


[00:44:21.820] – Lisa Melonçon

But I’m going to do it. 

[00:44:24.080] – Janice Summers

 You’ve got a website. 

[00:44:25.800] – Lisa Melonçon

Well, and I have a blog that I actually blog on occasionally. So this has inspired me, I will get a blog up by next week with some stuff. And Liz, I will send you the link to Menno’s work and,

[00:44:39.920] – Liz Fraley

and the blog when it’s written?

[00:44:41.480] – Lisa Melonçon

Yes and yes. 

[00:44:43.320] – Janice Summers

Everybody can connect with you via your website and there’s information on there. 

[00:44:49.550] – Lisa Melonçon

And Janice,  the  Errors piece is now linked.

[00:44:52.280] – Janice Summers

 Ok, good. Oh I want to see it.

[00:44:53.970] – Lisa Melonçon

You can download it. 

[00:44:55.570] – Janice Summers

I love that, because  I’m notorious with the errors just so you know, I drive Liz insane

[00:45:00.650] – Liz Fraley

 She calls them “easter eggs.” 

[00:45:02.090] – Janice Summers

You know, I just really explain to people, it’s “easter eggs” that I leave for everybody so they can find it. It’s PowerPoint slides, I’m like, “really?”

[00:45:11.120] – Lisa Melonçon

You know, that piece right there started some heavy duty thinking for me as a program administrator because I recognize that error, it still bothers a lot of people and that, people are viewed by it. And I get that, we have a capitalistic complex, so to speak. How business is done is still based on, pretty much, standard colonial English that came about for.. it’s all sorts of good and bad reasons, right? But when you think of a program administrator like myself and, I direct a program that teaches 5000 students a year in a basic technical communication course, where is the line between helping them understand, “you have to do things right by these standards,” and still acknowledging that these standards uphold things that may not necessarily need to be upheld?

[00:46:06.950] – Janice Summers


[00:46:07.140] – Lisa Melonçon

And so, there’s an implication in that article that’s really been weighing on my mind, so.

[00:46:14.960] – Janice Summers

 I can’t wait to read it.

[00:46:18.860] – Lisa Melonçon

 Let me know your thoughts, is all I’m saying.

[00:46:21.860] – Janice Summers

 I’ll share with you my thoughts. It has been a pleasure, 

[00:46:26.840] – Lisa Melonçon

Again, and for me, too. I’ve loved it. Thank you so much for having me, and I’m happy to come back anytime. And I look forward to seeing who’s going to be in room 42 next, I’ll come and join.

[00:46:38.130] – Janice Summers

It’s going to be fun, its going to be a lot of fun.

[00:46:38.320] – Liz Fraley

It’s just going to get better from here. 

[00:46:39.830] – Janice Summers

Thank you, everybody, for the questions. And I hope I sent most of them into the conversation. Sometimes we don’t have time to address all of them, but thank you. 

[00:46:50.990] – Lisa Melonçon

And folks can always send me an email, I mean.

[00:46:53.570] – Janice Summers


[00:46:54.080] – Lisa Melonçon

 I’ll answer, any question at any time. 

[00:46:56.480] – Janice Summers

And we encourage that. Alright, thanks, everybody. See you next time. 

[00:47:00.240] – Lisa Melonçon

Alright, bye bye.

[00:47:01.100] – Liz Fraley

Bye, everyone.  

[00:47:02.240] – Janice Summers


In this episode

Dr. Lisa Melonçon is a Professor of Technical and Professional Communication at the University of South Florida and incoming interim department chair in English. Her research focuses on programmatic issues in technical and professional communication as well as in user experience specific to health and medical settings.

In Room 42, she’ll be discussing a longitudinal research project (Patient Experience Design) on information design and patient education materials that has led to new insights into how technical communicators can understand foundational concepts of audience and contexts.


Lisa’s Website: http://tek-ritr.com/

Publications: http://tek-ritr.com/?post_type=hubble_publications

In-progress research projects: http://tek-ritr.com/research/

Mentioned during the episode

Errors in Professional Writing (2020, Journal article) http://tek-ritr.com/publications/errors-in-professional-writing/

DeJong and Schellens: Formative evaluation in document design: validity of the plus-minus method for the pretesting of public information brochures. https://research.utwente.nl/en/publications/formative-evaluation-in-document-design-validity-of-the-plus-minu

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