Rhetorical Awareness and User-Centered Design
In the last twenty years, two important ideas have developed that help professionals compose effective workplace writing:
- Rhetorical awareness
- User-centered design (also known as the reader-centered approach).
The idea of rhetorical awareness for workplace writing includes the following concepts:
- Workplace writing is persuasive. For example, when a writer composes a résumé, the persuasive goal is to get a job interview. Similarly, a report writer may need to persuade a client to take action to improve work conditions ensuring employee safety and timely production
- Workplace writing, since it's persuasive, must consider the rhetorical situation:
- Purpose (why the document is being written, the goals of the document
- Audience (who will read the document, includes shadow readers-unintended audiences who might read your work)
- Stakeholders (who may be affected by the document or project)
- Context (the background of and situation in which the document is created).
Through rhetorical awareness, professional communication has shifted from a genre-based approach, which focused on learning and reproducing forms or templates of documents, to thinking about the goals and situations surrounding the need to write. While professional writing still uses reports, white papers, etc., authors should approach these texts considering the rhetorical situation rather than considering documents as isolated work.
The idea of user-centered design includes the following concepts:
- Always consider and think about your audience
- Consider your readers based on:
- their expectations. What information do your readers expect to get? What can be provided to your readers?
- their characteristics. Who, specifically, is reading the work? Is the audience part of the decision making process? Will stakeholders read the work? Or is the audience a mixture of decision makers, stakeholders, and shadow readers? What organizational positions does the audience hold and how might this affect document expectations?
- their goals. What are your readers planning to accomplish? What should be included in your documents so that your readers get the information they need?
- their context. For what type of situation do the readers need this information?
- Identify information readers will need and make that information easily accessible and understandable
- User-centered documents must be usable, so consider how the document will be used rather than just how it will be read. For example, if a writer wants information regarding MLA formatting for an essay, s/he needs this information quickly in order to start work. The MLA information must be easily accessible, so the author can find, read, and understand it to begin writing
- Make your documents persuasive (see Rhetorical Awareness above).
By adopting user-centered design, workplace writing focuses on the expectations, goals, situations, and needs of the readers. Closely related to user-centered design is participatory design, which aligns users with designers in a collaborative relationship.
See our Audience Analysis handout for more information on researching your readers.
Applying User-Centered Design
User-centered design works in all levels of your documents: document design, information design, and sentence design.
User-centered documents should be easy to navigate. User-centered documents contain a clear, usable table of contents, visible section headers and page numbers, informative headings, and a well-formatted index. In addition, user-centered documents should contain pages that use plenty of white space and that integrate text and visual elements together to convey ideas. These structural elements help users find and understand information quickly.
See the HATS Methodology Powerpoint presentation for more information on page design.
User-centered documents should be easy to understand. User-centered documents should move from general to specific information, beginning with abstracts or executive summaries and introductions that forecast and overview main ideas and conclusions. Informative headings and topic sentences will help readers understand what information is contained in the following text. Paragraphs should move from general to specific details.
User-centered documents should be easy to read. This does not mean dumbing down information, but rather, communicating with audience needs in mind. As a technical expert, you may not always be communicating with other experts. You may have to present ideas to decision makers outside your area of expertise. These decision makers must understand your complex ideas. So avoid using jargon and provide glossaries for technical terms.
In addition, user-centered documents should contain sentences based on the BLUF and SVO methodologies. You don't want to BLUF your audience, so place the Bottom Line Up Front. Authors should also organize sentences moving from Subject to Verb to Object. The following examples illustrate the difference between sentences that are difficult to read and sentences that incorporate the user-centered approach:
The sentence above is difficult to read because it uses a complex structure and because the point of the idea comes at the end.
The sentence above is more user-centered because the main idea falls toward the beginning and because the sentence structure is less complex.
See Paramedic Method for more information on composing concise, user-centered sentences.
Glossary and References
Decision Makers: Readers who rely on information in your documents to make choices.
Genre-based Professional Communication: The idea that documents, such as reports, white papers, etc., should be taught and written as fixed and unchanging forms or templates isolated from the rhetorical situation.
Participatory Design: A methodology involving users (or research participants) and their feedback in the production process. Participatory design positions designers (authors) alongside users so that work is collaborative, and it levels the field of expertise between designer and user so that knowledge from both are recognized as valid and important to producing mutually beneficial technologies.
Rhetorical Awareness: Analyzing and understanding the purpose, audience, stakeholders, and context of the situation in which you are writing in order to make your documents persuasive and user-centered.
Rhetoric: "The art of persuasion by the available means" (Aristotle). "The use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols" (Kenneth Burke).
Shadow Reader: Unintended audience members you must consider when composing documents. The likelihood of shadow readers is much higher now considering global access to online information.
Stakeholders: People who may be affected by decision-makers' choices based on information in your documents.
User-Centered (Reader-Centered) Design: The idea that authors must always think about and consider the needs of the audience/users/readers. For user-centered design, "...the emphasis is on people, rather than technology, although the powers and limits of contemporary machines are considered in order to...take that next step from today's limited machines toward more user-centered ones" (Robert R. Johnson).
Anderson, Paul V. Technical Communication: A Reader-Centered Approach. 6th ed. Boston: Thomson-Wadsworth, 2007.
CPSR—Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. November 15, 2008, from http://cpsr.org/issues/pd/.
Ehn, Pelle. “Scandinavian Design: On Participation and Skill” P. S. Adler and T. A. Winograd (Eds.), Usability: Turning Technologies into Tools (96-132). New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Johnson, Robert R. User-Centered Technology: A Rhetorical Theory for Computers and Other Mundane Artifacts. Albany: SUNY Press, 1998.
Johnson-Sheehan, Richard. Technical Communication Today. New York: Pearson-Longman, 2005.
Participatory design is a design methodology that involves users (or research participants) and their feedback in the production process. Unlike the user-centered approach, where designers focus on users but still maintain primary control over development, participatory design positions designers (authors) alongside users so that work is collaborative.
Participatory design levels the field of expertise between designer and user so that knowledge from both are recognized as valid and important to producing mutually beneficial technologies: documents, toasters, vehicles, OWLs.
Expanding on Scandinavian manufacturing and computer design methods developed by Kristen Nygaard and Pelle Ehn, Robert Johnson (in User-centered Technology: A Rhetorical Theory for Computers and Other Mundane Artifacts) points out the social nature of participatory design, saying that the aim of participatory design researchers “is to broaden the perspective we have of what computers are and how they are used . . . participatory designers are interested in the social, political, cognitive, and practical facets of computer usage” (83).
According to Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, participatory design is an approach to the assessment, design, and development of technological and organizational systems that places a premium on the active involvement of practitioners (usually potential or current users of the system) in design and decision-making processes.
Pioneers in the field of participatory design are:
- Kristen Nygaard
- Pelle Ehn
- Stephen Draper
- Jakob Nielsen
- Donald Norman.
Recently, scholars in the writing disciplines have begun discussing ways participatory design impacts technical communication and research. Participatory design played a key role in current research on and redesign of the Purdue OWL.