Fawn Damitio, Juniper Networks
February 1, 2020

How people learn and consume information is swiftly changing and we, as technical communicators, must adapt. This article explores changes over the past decade in how people live and think, how these changes impact our role as technical communicators, and how UX and a modernized approach to content can help us thrive in this new world.

I came to learn about content design and the changing brain almost by accident. It came up as part of an initiative I was taxed with to transform Juniper Network’s online help. The leadership team had been trying to create something more effective than traditional help but, inevitably, one of the more important, “core” software features would be pushed up in priority over our documentation features. Efforts to improve the content design were always halted.

It was then that leadership realized that in order to improve content design in the software, we would need our own UX designers and UI developers.

At the time that I was hiring a UX designer, I had a vague impression of what they did. I knew that they knew about usability, had some background in computer science and graphics, and could create wireframes. What I didn’t realize was that having a UX designer on our team would not only help us transform our online help but it would also bring our team to see content from a different perspective.

UX designers don’t just pick correct color palettes or have a good gut feeling about what might work for customers. They are experts in human-computer interactions and they use their understanding of computer science, design, neuroscience, and psychology, along with data gathered from outside studies and their own user testing, to make purposeful design decisions about everything a customer interacts with while in front of a screen, including content.

Understanding how the brain works is an important element in creating content. I didn’t really get that until I had a UX designer on board who had an idea that sparked my interest in human-computer interactions.

Her idea was to bring content into the application, as opposed to an online help center, so as to minimize distractions. She understood that distractions are the very worst thing for those trying to complete a complex task. She also knew how to design content in such a way as to keep customers on task.

Understanding how people focus should be of utmost interest to any technical communicator. If we understand how our brains focus on complex tasks, we are on the road to creating effective, best-in-class content.

When people learn about complex tasks or concepts, they are using their pre-frontal cortex, the most recently evolved part of our brain.  It’s responsible for processing complex or abstract ideas. Unfortunately, the pre-frontal cortex is also very particular and needs the exact right circumstances to work.

The pre-frontal cortex is only able to focus on one central theme at a time. Distractions need to be none or minimal. In addition, the pre-frontal cortex takes a lot of energy to process complex tasks. If the brain is fatigued when trying to do something complex, you will either introduce a lot of errors or you will fail at the task at hand.

In many ways, modern society is working against our ability to help customers complete complex tasks. Distractions abound. Companies fight for attention through notifications, flashing graphics, sounds, automatically playing videos, and so on. These distractions are expertly designed by those who know that they tap into one of the more ancient — and unfortunately dominant – areas of the brain – the subthalamic nucleus (STN).

The STN system is responsible for stopping our movement when something comes into our field of vision. It is also responsible for stopping cognition when we encounter a sudden distraction – a ding from a text message arriving, for example. In hunter-gatherer days, our STN served us well. If we heard a lion growl or saw a bear out of the corner of our eye, we’d be able to notice, stop the task at hand, and run.

These days, it isn’t quite as useful. If we have a dozen distractions coming to us through app notifications and text messages, it is going to be hard for our pre-frontal cortex to do much of anything, let alone complete a complex task. And the other primary requirement for our brains to process complex information, energy, is being consumed by another common phenomenon in our society these days, context switching.

Context switching, simply put, is switching from one task or activity to another. Context switching can impact productivity by as much as 40% and today, due to so many distractions, we switch context on average every three minutes. Context switching uses a large amount of brainpower, reducing the amount of energy we have to complete complex tasks.

The UX designer I brought on board knew all of this already of course. That’s why she knew we needed to embed the help in the application. With her background in human-computer interactions, and usability studies we conducted with customers, we have embedded content in our software applications that helps tired, distracted users to be able to finally focus on the task at hand.

The suggestions and innovations we created in the application led us to make even more changes within our offerings.  We improved design and usability on our Website, in our content templates, and even in our writing styles. Customers are breathing a sigh of relief because they are more easily able to consume and use the information we provide.

This is, of course, the essence of good technical writing. Being able to understand who your customer is, what they are trying to accomplish, and providing expertly crafted content in an effective design is our nirvana.

To attain this nirvana, we must expand our craft and fully embrace emerging areas such as UX. I now see having a UX designer on a technical writing staff as essential to creating great content – it is one of the ways that our industry is, and must, evolve. In addition, we need to learn on our own and deepen our understanding of our customer through areas such as brain science, psychology, learning theory, and UX. This is the next evolution of our profession.