The communication process

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Communication is best thought of as the transfer of information from one person to another. Technical communication is therefore the transfer of information of a technical nature from one person to another. In most cases this will be the transfer of information about a product (or about how to use a product) from the designers or manufacturers of the product to the users or maintainers of that product. Increasingly, it may also be information about a process - how a specific task or operation (which may or may not involve the use of one or more products) is carried out. The role of the Technical Communicator is to make sure that this communication is as effective as possible.

The Nature of Communication

Four things are required for communication to take place. These are:

  • A sender - the person giving out the information;
  • A message - the information being communicated;
  • A medium - the format in which the information is being conveyed;
  • A recipient - the person receiving the information.

However, the existence of these four things does not automatically guarantee a successful communication. A communication has only succeeded when the information given by the sender has been received and understood by the recipient.

Although the Technical Communicator is largely concerned with the message, the better they understand all four factors (sender, message, medium, and recipient), the better equipped they will be to ensure that the communication is effective.

Means of Communication

The means by which information will be delivered can largely be divided into the following categories (although other categorizations are certainly possible):

  • Physical communications;
  • Visual communications;
  • Aural communications;
  • Written communications.

Each of these types of communication is explained in further detail below.

Physical Communications

This category of communication includes such things as a nudge, or a tap on the shoulder. The limitation of this type of communication is that it relies upon the recipient being in close proximity to the sender. Another example would be a mobile 'phone on vibrate mode. Here, the sender is not necessarily in close proximity to the recipient (this would obviate the need to use a mobile 'phone!) but the 'phone itself must be in close proximity to the recipient. In either case, physical communications are best suited to one-to-one communications.

Physical communications are rarely used for technical communications, although it is certainly possible to conceive of situations where they may be the most effective - such as the use of an electric fence instead of a 'Keep Out' sign!

Visual Communications

Visual communications can be thought of as all forms of communication that rely on the visual perception of the recipient (with the exception of written communications, which are described separately below). Examples of visual communications are traffic lights, semaphore, smoke signals, and so on.

Visual communications are useful in noisy environments (for example, a warning light on a factory floor), in environments where sound is not possible, such as underwater, or in space. Visual communications, in common with aural communications (see below), are also useful for `mass communications' - where a message is to be communicated to a large and possibly unidentified audience.

The disadvantage of visual communications is that they rely on a clear line of sight between the sender and the recipient. Furthermore, the sender of the communication must have the attention of the recipient before the communication is sent - that is, the recipient must be watching for the communication (or at least facing in the right direction).

With visual communications, it is particularly important to note that the communication is only effective if the recipient of the signal understands the meaning of it - there is little point in having a flashing light if the recipient does not know what the flashing light means. Visual communications are therefore seldom used as the only means of communication, usually relying on a secondary (and ideally preceding) communication that explains the meaning of the visual communication along with where it will take place, and when, or under which circumstances, it will be transmitted. Even traffic lights rely on the recipient having been taught (via driving lessons) the meaning of the lights.

Aural Communications

Aural communications include all communications that rely on the recipient hearing the communication. This includes spoken words, sirens, alarm bells, and so on.

Aural communications can be useful over long distances (as is the case with fog horns on ships). They are useful for communicating to several people at once and also in situations where the exact recipient of the communication is not known (for example, warning sirens).

Aural communications can be very effective for gaining the attention of people, perhaps as a prior warning for another type of communication. As with visual communications, aural communications rely on the recipient understanding the meaning of the communication.

An example of an aural communication used for technical communications is the warning beep that is often sounded if you press the wrong key in a software application, or the chime that plays when new e-mail arrives. In the latter case, the communication informs the user (of the system) of an event without interrupting what they are doing (as would be the case with, for example, a dialog box).

Written Communications

Written communications include all communications that rely on the communication being recorded on a physical medium - even if the physical medium is a computer screen or other visual display device. Written communications may consist of text, images (including signs), or a combination of the two.

The primary advantage of written communications is their (relative) permanence. A written communication can be referred to again and again, over a period of time. This has a number of important implications. Firstly, should the recipient initially not understand the communication, they can re-read it; secondly, should there be any future doubt or disagreement as to the content of the communication, then the communication can be referred to again; finally, the communication does not necessarily have to be for immediate action - it may be intended for use (or reference) at some unspecified time in the future (as is the case with, for example, a birth certificate).

The primary disadvantage of written communications is that they rely upon the use of a 'language' that is commonly understood by both the sender and the recipient. In most cases the medium will be the written word, and so the vocabulary and grammar will be the common element (although one cannot always assume that the sender and the recipient speak the same language). In other cases, for example where symbols are used, a common interpretation of the symbols must already have been established. This is quite often the case for communications between people operating within the same discipline - such as electrical engineers, who have a pre-defined set of symbols for electrical elements.

Another disadvantage of written communications (when compared to verbal, aural or physical communications) is that there is seldom an opportunity to correct any misunderstandings in the communication. Generally, for written communications, the recipient reads the message some time after the sender has written it, and the sender is not available to provide clarifications.

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