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PhD Defence Zhijun (James) Gao | Technical Communication in China - Studies on the User Experience of Technical Documentation

Technical Communication in China - Studies on the User Experience of Technical Documentation

The PhD defence of Zhijun (James) Gao will take place in the Waaier building of the University of Twente and can be followed by a live stream.
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Zhijun (James) Gao is a PhD student in the department Communication Science. Promotor is prof.dr. M.D.T. de Jong from the faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social Science.

Technical communication is the process of conveying complex information to a varied audience, including both technical and non-technical individuals. It aims to make information usable and accessible. The dissertation provides an in-depth examination of technical communication's evolution in China, with a focus on enhancing user experience with technical documentation.

The dissertation is organized into seven chapters, beginning with the current state of technical communication in China, followed by three parts covering five research studies on various aspects of technical documentation, including the roles of technical communicators who create technical documentation, the design and evaluation of developer documentation, and the application of emotional design in user manuals. It concludes by summarizing key findings, discussing theoretical and practical implications, and suggesting future research directions.

This dissertation aims to answer five research questions. The first focuses on the state of the art of TC in China. The other four questions explore specific angles on TC in a Chinese context. The five research questions are:

  • RQ1.  What is the development of technical communication as a professional discipline in China?
  • RQ2.  What are the learning habits, information journey, and expectations of Chinese developers regarding developer documentation?
  • RQ3. What are key factors influencing the effectiveness of searching and finding technical documentation?
  • RQ4. What are effective strategies for evaluating performance and user experience of developer documentation?
  • RQ5. What is the impact of emotional design on user experience and effectiveness in technical documentation?

Having worked on the development of TC in China for an extended period, I am engaged on a daily basis with its evolutionary trends. This immersion naturally led to the formulation of the first research question (RQ1), which concerns the past, present, and future of technical communication in China.

Throughout my research, I encountered large differences in technical communication between China and Western countries. User documentation, highly valued in the West, is often overlooked in China, where many products appear to lack such documentation. In contrast, I found that Chinese enterprises place significant emphasis on documentation for (software) developers, which might be attributed to the advanced state of China's IT industry and the high salaries of programmers. There is a natural incentive to improve programmers' work efficiency. Given that programmers, as professionals, rely heavily on documentation to perform their tasks, enterprises pay much attention to documentation intended for developers. This led to the need for research on developer documentation, aiming to design a better informational experience for developers. To this end, I began by studying the characteristics of developers, especially their needs in interacting with technical documentation (RQ2).

In the course of researching developers, I discovered that the starting point of the entire information experience is the developers' need to first locate the relevant technical documentation, which then leads to the subsequent information journey. If this document cannot be found, there is no progression, naturally raising the issue of studying the factors that affect the findability of technical documentation (RQ3). After addressing this issue, the next inquiry naturally emerged: how to evaluate the user experience of developer documentation, focusing on evaluation models and processes (RQ4).

Developers use development kits to complete the development of software products, following the guidance provided in developer documentation. As end products, documentation for software products is well-supported by existing technical communication theories. However, from the perspectives of information experience or user experience, I have contemplated incorporating emotional design into technical documentation, leading to the formulation of the final research question (RQ5). 

In closing, this dissertation offers a comprehensive and pioneering exploration into the nuances of technical communication within the rapidly evolving landscape of China's technology sector. It dissects the multifaceted components of technical communication, from the demographic and professional intricacies of technical communicators to the subtle art of enhancing user experience through emotional design. Each chapter, building upon the last, unfolds a narrative that is both informative and instructive, revealing the importance of understanding user needs, preferences, and behaviors in the creation of effective and affective technical documentation. This work not only contributes to the academic field of technical communication but also offers practical recommendations for professionals looking to improve their documentation strategies.

Ultimately, this dissertation serves as a call to action for both scholars and practitioners in the field of technical communication to continue exploring innovative ways to meet the evolving demands of users, ensuring that technical documentation remains a critical tool in the advancement of technology and user experience worldwide.