Yes, today was the last day for us judges (for the STC Carolina Chapter competition) to have our evaluation forms submitted. I got my forms in just in time and our team leader is probably glad that’s over with. I’m done with judging.
The Form of the Form
I joined a very respectable team of fellow judges and we really spent some time looking at our entries. Do you know what the average time a judge spends evaluating an entry for an STC competition? Well, I don’t know, but I know that I put at least a couple of hours per entry into this whole judging effort. It’s a demanding job that requires experience, a good eye, and articulation abilities that differ from our usual technical communication abilities. Offering both constructive criticism and positive feedback, we need to write our evaluations on particularly unfriendly forms. Several years ago we used forms that asked us to quantify (yes/no) whether an attribute of a good entry was met or not, and then total up the numbers to determine if the entry was worthy of an award. And oh, yes, we were supposed to add some additional comments that would be helpful. I guess a lot of judges were skimping on that last part, so STC decided to change the layout of the evaluation forms. Now, the form consists of rectangles of white space where you have to write comments about every attribute of an entry, which sounds great – lots of freedom to express yourself, but the problem is, who has the time to write complete sentences for 20 to 40 aspects of an entry? Now it takes longer and requires more thought to fill out the evaluation form. And this extra effort is expected from professionals who have seen their workload double and triple in their day job and who have less time to volunteer with STC. Shouldn’t the forms take less time to fill out now then previous years? And who came up with the word or phrase that appears in the otherwise empty box? What do these boxes even mean? Who designs these forms? Never mind. Let’s just say that I don’t think the change to the forms is an improvement.
Time is in Short Supply
I must say that it has been a learning experience for me, but it is not as fun as several years ago when I judged for a similar competition but under much different circumstances. Besides things being easier in the old days — when we didn’t have to wear so many hats at work, and your colleagues weren’t getting laid off or downsized, ah, the good old days, when STC was about twice the size that it is today, and there was no shortage of volunteers and professionals had time to meet for lunch or dinner or an evening meeting — but I digress, besides all that, there was value in evaluating each other’s work. Today, who has time to put into this archaic ritual? I mean, outside of STC judging, do people really still fill out boxes in Microsoft Word documents and attach those documents to emails anymore? I felt as if I had been transported back in time to the 1990s but without the luxury of time I had then. For some reason, this year, the entries didn’t get distributed until later than usual, and with the Thanksgiving holiday being more important these days with family time getting pressure from every side, we had very little time to look over our entries, evaluate them, and meet to decide about awards. I started to wonder why were using such old technology for evaluating entries. I mean, for all of STC, can’t someone just make an online web site so we can post our evaluations in the cloud?
And what IS an entry anyway these days? In the old days there were user manuals and there were sales data sheets. Now there is everything in between and documents that cross boundaries and content that does not even reside in a document. There is no separate printed versus online competition anymore and STC has changed the categories in a vain attempt to keep up with the kaleidoscope of content containers. So entries come in PDF files and I’m not sure if they are meant to be viewed online or read as a printed document. Entries are in this gray area between sales and engineering, between promotion and instruction. And what does “Informational” mean anyway? Isn’t that redundant for anything we do? Of course this blurring of categories is simply mirroring reality, but it poses the question of why we have categories at all. But there’s an even bigger question that comes to mind when one considers the technology of the entries and the technology behind competition judging.
Feedback is Essential, but When?
With so many forms of communication on the Web now, and so much communication happening instantly, who needs judging of entries? The question is – Is this form of peer review and feedback even useful these days? I mean, besides the great back-slapping that goes on as we award fellow professionals for their work, besides the chance to make ourselves feel important and honored, the main value from STC competitions has been the great feedback you get on your entry. And that feedback used to be very valuable before web site analytics came along, before server-based documentation included feedback forms, and before social media became available. Now there are so many forms of feedback that tie directly to the users of the content and that feedback can be collected in almost real-time, that I can’t imagine how useful my judging is if it takes months before the submitter receives the feedback from the judging. Hey, by that time, they are probably on to other projects, moved to other divisions of the company, working on the next generation product, or even looking for another job after being laid off from the one that involved them creating the entry. In an age where Whitney Quesenbery can do an online web site usability study where she remotely connect to my computer and see where I click in her Web site, who needs the delay or the anonymity of these old-fashioned judging events?
Yes, today’s the last day for me. That’s it for me. I don’t think I’ll be judging for STC anymore. I’ve done my time; I’ve judged several competitions now and it’s time to retire. Maybe it’s time to retire the whole notion of STC competitions.