From the Director
Who is doing research to answer the questions asked by publications managers and staff members? In fact, what are the questions we need to have answered? Why is research important to guide us in answering questions when we have plenty of opinions about how information should be communicated.
In the box below are some of the questions I receive that might be addressed by research.
I am certain that each of you could add many questions to my short list. In fact, I’d appreciate receiving questions like these so that I can build a longer list of questions that we would like to have answered.
Perhaps the much more important questions is: How do we get the research done that would assist us in answering these questions in a systematic way?
Some organizations do their own research. IBM used to conduct internal studies of customers to discover what might be most useful to them. One study I heard presented several years ago noted that customers who were professional programmers preferred information that included many well annotated examples of code. They learned more from such examples than from conceptual overviews or process discussions. In a few cases, we know of human factors teams that are willing to conduct some research into user assistance questions, although they tend to focus more of their attention on user interface design.
What about university programs in technical communication? Are they doing the studies we need? Remember that most technical communication programs are housed in English departments. English department faculty are generally not equipped to conduct the behavioral research that we need. In my many years as a member of STC’s research grants committee, we received almost no proposals addressing basic questions of information use. Most of the studies funded by STC with $10,000 maximum grants looked at pedagogy (problems of teaching technical communication). Note that $10,000 does not go very far in supporting detailed research. That sum provides for a little research time for the faculty member and supports a graduate student part time for a few months. Think about it-just how much contractor time does $10,000 buy in your organization at about $50/hour?
A few individuals, like Hans van der Meij in the Netherlands or Judy Ramey at the University of Washington, conduct design research regularly, but they are few and far between.
CIDM is dedicated to performing research studies that benefit our members. The research to date has focused on benchmark studies that compare organizational practices. Our research into the detailed behavioral questions that everyone asks has been limited to specific customer studies funded by individual organizations. They are, of course, proprietary! To conduct non-proprietary research requires funding that we obtain from many members. Hence-our pooled research proposals, such as the new study of best practices in content management and single sourcing.
So-what is the solution? CIDM would like both to conduct research studies and fund careful research studies conducted by leading universities and their best faculty. But-as usual-we need funding to do so. Given the size of our total membership today, your CIDM membership fees fund only the activities we already perform, such as the communications we provide to members in newsletters, e-newsletters, and white papers.
In our recent study of organizational budgets, discussed in the February Best Practices e-newsletter, we found that very few of our members have budgets for research. The few that do have some latitude to support research activities but, in the last year or so, have found these budgets cut. We ask you to try to set up budget lines for research. Your $10,000 or $20,000 can go a long way in answering key questions when it is combined with the small budgets of several organizations. Consider that the average research project costs from $50,000 to $150,000 to conduct, especially when the questions are complex.
We can help everyone to answer the critical questions we have about user assistance, but we need help. I would like to hear suggestions and ideas about the research funding issues. Let me know what you believe we can do.