Could Employee Motivation Theories be Useful for Technical Communicators?

One of the more difficult aspects of being a writer is audience motivation. We face the issue of motivation all the time. Luckily there has been research on this topic that can help with audience engagement. Developmental psychology researchers Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan conducted research on human resource development and how seeing things from an employee’s point of view can change how they are motivated in the workplace. Despite this research being designed for the workplace, I argue that it can also be helpful for technical communicators. 

For starters, they introduce the phenomenon called a “Copernican Turn.” Essentially, individuals are empowered by institutions that set rules for engagement. Individuals are now at the center of their personal and professional lives. This has created new dynamics in the workplace. Writers are able to use this phenomenon to help with their audience as well. Having the user feel engaged while reading or following instructions can help keep them motivated. Instructions are supposed to be effective for the user when they are learning a task. To create effective instructions is to guide the user through a set of simplified steps that can leave them feeling accomplished. However, the task of creating effective instructions can be challenging. This is why research about self-motivation is important for technical communicators.

The researchers also go over the concepts of high-quality motivation and self-determination. These are motivational qualities that can help employees stay productive on their tasks. High-quality motivation is where the employee’s needs are met by their individual needs, values, and interests. As a writer, there is also the need to keep the reader motivated while they are completing tasks. Let’s take this from the perspective of a consumer who needs to build a cabinet for their book collection.The reader might be highly motivated to keep building the piece of furniture through self-motivation. The user in question probably does not know how to correctly build a cabinet but they want to learn through a set of straightforward instructions since they are not familiar with furniture assembly. What can technical writers do if there is no strong self-determined motivation? One way to establish a pattern of motivational rewards for your customer is to create instructions that are simplified and easy to follow. Some examples include IKEA furniture steps or following a recipe online. IKEA instructions are effective because they are simple. It shows photos on how pieces of furniture should be assembled with photos and a step by step guide. So how does this correlate to motivation? The user would be able to gain satisfaction by following these sets of instructions. It can keep the user motivated during the assembly process. The instructions are easy to access and can give the consumer a sense of accomplishment.

In contrast to high-quality motivation, there is also low-quality motivation. This is where an employee is faced with both external and internal pressures caused by themselves or the company. The users themselves might also have low-motivation due to internal pressures. Now where these pressures come from are up to debate, but the writer has the job of helping the readers feel accomplished as they complete tasks. One example might be following a troubleshooting guide. This might be confusing for the end user if they are not familiar with the technology. The reader would be left frustrated about reading through complex guides which they do not understand. Being left confused after reading a set of ineffective instructions can leave the user in low-motivation. So how can technical communicators improve on troubleshooting guides? This could be done with providing helpful tips or more streamlined instructions that can help general users understand. They have to consider not only those who are familiar with technology but also those who might not be. The end reward for the user is being able to solve the problem with the assistance of effective instruction. This reward can turn low-quality motivation into high-quality motivation.

So how can technical communicators fulfill in creating information that supports high-quality motivation for their audience? By fulfilling their basic psychological needs. The researchers introduce three concepts: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. When these needs are met people are able to increase performance. Autonomy is having a sense of accomplishment through self actions. This is similar to the IKEA instructions since the user can have a sense of accomplishment from following an effective tutorial. Technical communicators can also achieve this through providing readers with effective information that will help them successfully complete tasks or comprehend new concepts. Relatedness is being able to connect with the audience. Think back to the furniture assembly example from earlier. I found that example could relate to the readers since many users had to build furniture. Many users might have felt frustrated if the instructions were unclear and lacked simplicity. Competence is having the user feel like they are succeeding in tasks. Following a recipe can be a great example of competence. Having the user feel like they are completing tasks efficiently is a great method of keeping consumer motivation. The instructions that the technical writer provides them can not only help them complete the task but it also helps the user feel accomplished in doing so. 

I found this research to be very insightful. I was curious about how motivational theories could relate to technical communication. After looking through the research and learning about autonomy, relatedness, and competence I came to a realization:that technical communicators could use this information to help create effective instructions for their users. It made me think that creating effective instructions that encourage high-quality motivation could improve the readers’ engagement.


Self-Determination Theory in Human Resource Development: New Directions and Practical Conditions, by C. Scott Rigby and Richard M. Ryan

Viewpoint Written by Jason Brown, Old Dominion University

Viewpoint Edited by Elena Ofenstein, Texas State University & TC Camp Volunteer

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