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A Call to Advocacy

In one of his many public lectures to engineering students and designers, former Apple, Inc. VP Don Norman (2014) called out the insensitivity in computer systems developers and designers today when it comes to user advocacy. “Efficiency and functionality aren’t the same,” proclaimed the former professor of cognitive psychology' and computer science. Norman reiterated a point he had made since the 1980s that systems designers (including interface designers) need to advocate for user needs. Designers must consider user goals, understand user expectations and behaviors, and most importantly, involve the user in the design and development process. User-centered design is born of this heuristic. In “Ethics of Engagement,” Michael Salvo (2009) highlighted the distinction between user observation and user engagement. Through his case studies, Salvo observed that user engagement invokes user-centered design through dialogic interactions and participatory' design methods. When users claim ownership and contribute directly to the actual design process, the product would result in more desirable user experience. In addition, the U.S. federal resource page (n.d.) stated that benefits of user-centered design also include reduced user errors, reduced developmental cost, and increased sales.

However, since technology and its design are never neutral nor objective, technical communicators have argued that user advocacy should go beyond the considerations for efficiency and satisfaction. Evidently, our field has always taken on issues of ethics and cultural ideologies to combat inequitable practices. Steven Katz’s (1992) landmark critique of the “ethic of expediency” in technical documentations has shed light on the problems with deliberative rhetoric—typically taught in college writing courses as strategies for persuasion—disguised in style, logic, and affective appeals. The obsession over proper formatting, logical presentation of information, and technical accuracy in technical communication can create a blind spot to the social and political implications of technology. Sam Dragga and Dan Voss’s (2001) study of data display and other technical illustrations showed a similar concern. Technical information tends to mask humanistic values and strip away compassion for the subject matter. To rectify, technical communicators should “adapt the technical to the human” (Dragga & Voss, 2001, p. 272). I agree and challenge technical communicators to take it upon themselves the responsibility of standing by users and being their strongest advocates.

User advocacy must include paying attention to minoritized and marginalized user communities, inviting their perspectives and contributions, and empowering their involvement in the building of technologies. A telling example can be found in the case of racist algorithms. Joy Buolamwini, while a grad student at MIT, had researched and fought against racial bias in machine learning. Noticing that facial analysis applications would not detect darker skin tones and facial structures, Buolamwini (2016) urged designers to recognize coded bias and how users can help mitigate such problematic design. Similarly, Safiya Noble (2018) in her bestselling book, Algorithm of Oppression, revealed the influences of human biases and values on technology design. Following Buolamwini and Noble’s work, Cruz Medina and Octavio Pimentel (2018) have curated in their open-access digital book, Racial Shorthand, a series of culturally relevant examples that demonstrate the erasing of non-dominant cultures through oppressive technology design. These examples showed negligence on the part of designers and communicators, and reinforced the importance of centeringjustice work in technical communication.

An oft-cited set of ethical guidelines,2 the Society for Technical Communication (STC) code of ethics states:

We seek to promote the public good in our activities. To the best of our ability, we provide truthful and accurate communications. We also dedicate ourselves to conciseness, clarity, coherence, and creativity, striving to meet the needs of those who use our products and services. We alert our clients and employers when we believe that material is ambiguous.

(Ethical principles. Society for Technical Communication, 1998)

The “public good” in this case should highlight social justice components among other principles like professionalism, honesty, and quality that make up the fabric of technical communication ethics. We need to consider our craft and invention in terms of their social impact on different stakeholders and the larger community. We must be sensitive toward the effects of our work especially to those who lack the power or autonomy to make choices. We must empathize with the real-world conditions our users experience and expand the promotion of the “public good” to include combating injustice through technical communication activities. There are exemplary cases that can teach technical communicators and user experience designers some lessons on user advocacy; the next section features three instances of user-centered social innovation that are informed by design thinking.

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