Posted by: soniahs | August 30, 2010

Exam reading: “User-centered technology”

In this book, Robert Johnson explores technical design from a rhetorical perspective. His “system-oriented” and “user-oriented” distinction brings to mind this cartoon.

Summary: Johnson explores the relationship between technology and people from a technical communication perspective. He articulates two types of knowledge: expert theoretical knowledge and applied practical knowledge; traditionally, theoretical knowledge is valued more highly. End-users are often invisible in the design process, which can lead to problem-prone technologies. Johnson advocates getting users involved from the start of the design process, and incorporating their practical, task-based knowledge into design. He contrasts this approach (user-centered design) to system-centered and user-friendly design processes. Johnson grounds his book in a “user-centered rhetorical complex of technology:” a reworked version of the rhetorical triangle which places the user at the center; has the designer, the system, and the user tasks as the vertices; and places this relationship within concentric circles of general activities (learning, doing, producing), constraints of human networks (institutions, disciplines, community), and finally large social factors (culture, history). He emphasizes the importance of reflecting on assumptions about technical determinism when designing large projects. He also discusses the specific case of producing technical explanations for computer systems (e.g., documents should be organized in a task-oriented way). He ends by connecting the ends of technical writing pedagogy to those of rhetoric (focus on the user/audience, supposed to be working toward “the good”), and suggesting a service-learning approach for tech writing classes.

Comments: Johnson falls somewhere in between Feenberg and Norman on an axis of “politics and philosophy” vs. “design for easy use.” For non-technical writers, there are still some good design ideas here (though he does emphasize the application of his ideas to this field), mainly having user input throughout the design process, designing with specific tasks in mind, and avoiding a “design for dummies” approach.

Links to: Norman (user-friendly approach); Feenberg (phil./politics of technology); Gee (learning by doing)



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