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Spinuzzi, Clay & Mark Zachry. “Genre Ecologies: An Open-System Approach to Understanding and Constructing Documentation” ACM Journal of Computer Documentation. Vol. 24, No. 3 (August 2000).

  • In this piece, the authors use two case studies to argue that a genre ecologies framework provides important insights into how people use texts to make sense of computer technologies (169). They also suggest three heuristics (exploratory questions, genre ecology diagrams, organic engineering) technical writers can use to produce effective documentation.
  • Closed system documentation: systems that only use documentation shipped with the product as opposed to more diverse, often informal resources that are sometimes used to provide users information on technology use.
  • Open system documentation: how documentation typically works – individuals use a variety of different resources to figure out a technology . . . these are often informal tactics as opposed to official documentary strategies.
  • Key Claim: “An open-system approach entails recognizing that human interactions with complex technologies are inevitably mediated by dynamic and unpredictable clusters of communication artifacts and activities. Such clusters can be best described as genre ecologies.” (170-1).
  • Genre ecologies are accountable to: 1) contingency; 2) decentralization; and 3) relative stability (171).
  • Moving the documentation (and any development) process away from a closed system toward an open one recognizes the “social-cultural-historical milieu” rather than the “individual-document dyad” . . . and allows us to think about usability as a social practice, not an atomistic issue.
  • Key Definition: “A genre ecology includes an interrelated group of genres (artifact types and the interpretive habits that have developed around them) used to jointly mediate the activities that allow people to accomplish complex objectives. In genre ecologies, multiple genres and constituent subtasks co-exist in a lively interplay as people grapple with information technologies” (172).
  • Importance of the genre ecology: accounts for contingency, accounts for the decentralized and distributed qualities of functionality; accounts for relative stability.
  • Key Terms: 1) Contingency: “uncertainty, the conditional dependence on the fulfillment of conditions. That is, contingency involves the complex, opportunistic, sometimes risky coordinations among genres that are made by people who are trying to accomplish certain things. 2) Decentralization: “the distribution of usability, design, and intention across the ecology of genres”; 3) Stability: “the tendency of users to make the interconnections beteen the genres the use conventional and official.”
  • Three Questions for Planning Research Studies (from Spinuzzi & Zachry 175):

3 Heuristics

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