Designing for User Engagement on the Web. Ed. Cheryl Geisler. Routledge, 2014. (Selections)


Core Argument: “[T]he goals, needs, preferences, capabilities and habits of users engaging web-based communications are quite different from those characterizing users of more traditional print and digital media. Implied throughout this book is that instead of reaplying to the design of user engagement the same guidelines that we have used in the past, the time has arrived for our design decisions to be based on a new set of guidelines that are informed by a new understanding of modern users of social media” (xi).


  • This book shifts usability to user engagement and community. It also provides 10 basic principles to that end.
  • Moving away from usability, the PIs of the study emphasize user engagement. This is a shift away from function toward experience. To do this, the designers needed:
    • To cede control from designers to users. IoW, the requirements analysis phase should be guided by the users, not designers.
    • Shift away from high design and toward “amateur design”: This necessitates a decline in design standards and a rise of the user.
    • A shift from “canonical path to narrative path”: The use of digital storytelling to build online identity and community replaces the emphasis on task-orientation (xiii).
  • This work acknowledges the shift toward user engagement by emphasizing connectivity and interaction to build identity and community [1. Interestingly, this is the main argument in your dissertation and also shows up in your analysis of digital tools in piracy communities.].


“Introduction: From Usability to User Engagement” – Cheryl Geisler & Roger Grice

  • An important difference from previous work in usability: The emphasis in these studies is on design, not necessarily in usability testing. IoW, they hope that their 10 principles will be used early on in the development process, not as something that comes after to evaluate utility (2).
  • The authors emphasize engagement, or doing better work, rather than usability (can I use this to complete my work?). This is a shift away from the notion that use is always tethered to productivity and task-orientation, instead emphasizing that engagement, or the ways that we curate identity and communal membership, often motivates digital tool use on the web (3). An emphasis on engagement is an emphasis on interaction among users, not task-orientation (think: Norman’s 2010 “sociable design”).
  • Key to this process of engagement is the use of narrative (engage via story) and recruitment (encourage participation from reader).
  • Tradeoffs of shifting from usability toward design & engagement:
    • 1) Loss of control in the documentation process
    • 2) Loss of high design to amateur design
    • Loss of canonical path to narrative


Chapter One – “Design for Diverse Users” – James P. Zappen

  • This chapter argues that you can’t design for everyone. Once you disavow yourself of this notion, design agendas move toward “developing a set of differential experiences” (20).
  • Zappen argues that “no system and no interaction will be intuitive for every user. Designers, therefore, need to provide a variety of system capabilities and user options, and perhaps even invite users to modify systems, to accommodate these differences” (ibid). [2. Interesting convergence here with Zappen’s contention and your own research demonstrating the ways that CMSs are flexible systems that allow for user customizability and extension vis-à-vis various modification scripts, etc.].
  • Zappen argues that because of the diversity of users, designers must assume that no system is intuitive to everyone and must provide users the ability to contribute/share information with one another (22).
  • “Designing for Differential Experiences” means:
    • Recognize that many users are also producers.
    • Anticipate the need for multiple interfaces
    • Design not only for efficiency and function but also for user’s ability to engage via contribution/interaction.
    • Test with varied audiences for function, use and contribution/interaction.
    • Never assume anything is intuitive to anyone (26).


Chapter Two – “Design for Usability” – Janice W. Fernheimer

  • This chapter argues that designers must build on “familiar conventions for usability” to ensure that users are oriented and have consistent experiences (27). We must start with the conventions even when we’re building technologies that reach beyond them.
  • Designing for usability works best when web communications: 1) follow standard usability guidelines; 2) make things readable; 3) use professional-quality design components; 4) follow general conventions when available; 5) provide simple ways for users to do what they want or need to do (ibid).
  • In this chapter, F. highlights how these principles for usability design don’t necessarily hold when working in areas that are new or radically unfamiliar for users. That being said, design and usability must be modified to include the old orientations/tools but still make use of the contemporary technologies that shape writing on the web.


Chapter Three – “Test the Backbone” – Robert Krull

  • This chapter argues that all web-based communication technologies rely on both a hardware infrastructure and a software infrastructure. Ensuring that both are tip top and that appropriate set-up time is available for development & implementation is essential for successful user engagement. Backbone evaluation takes place in three areas: 1) components that make up the backbone; 2) required time to set up the backbone; and 3) user experience of the backbone (32-3).


Chapter Four – “Extend a Welcome” – Patricia Search

  • Because of the enormity of the web, it is difficult to know a lot about prospective web users. As such, when designing for engagement in web content, it is essential to find ways to engage a broad audience. For Search et al., the use of multisensory and personal experience engagement was an effective way to help users feel welcome.
  • Specifically, the Search team used diverse media and storytelling to create the “multisensory experience.”
  • In essence, the authors argue that cross-cultural communication depends heavily on the affective domains of media . . . and story. Weaving together the two creates engagement for users that might otherwise not be interesting in engaging the artifact/site.


Chapter 5 – “Set the Context” – Janice W Fernheimer & Samantha Good

  • The authors argue that making web-based communication engaging requires designers to prepare readers for the experience of the site and to also motivate them to participate by identifying appropriate context for use. Through appropriate context of use identification, designers can embed communication more effectively while also acknowledging the inherent contextual dynamics of a website (46).
  • To promote “deep collaboration,” or recursive collaboration throughout the writing process (a la wikis), F.’s team went beyond the usablility of the tools in MediaWiki and the alternative, instead emphasizing how particular contexts are more appropriate to particular tools (actually, vice-versa).
  • Setting “context” means prepping the user for the experience of engagement in the web environment. This was done by scaffolding students to participate in the wiki project.
  • The “contextual dynamics” of use (in this case the classroom) greatly affected the choice of tools for F.’s wiki assignment. The contextual dynamics make embedding particular activities difficult.


Chapter 6 – “Make a Connection” – Patricia Search

  • This principle argues that using narrative or storytelling as a design element from the very first experience of users increases engagement.
  • Search argues that tapping into universal human emotions creates a bridge whereby cross-cultural communication is more easily created (54). [4. What is a universal human emotion?]
  • Making a connection is in many ways related to “providing background” or grounding a tradition in a context that is relatable and taps into universal human narratives of family, love, etc.
  • To make a connection, S. argues that designers can: 1) include stories that reach out to audience experiences; 2) identify themes in stories that create community [5. This sounds a lot like Ganz’s method for community engagement/activism.]; 3) provide background information; 4) providing links to additional information that might be foreign to the user; 5) include familiar symbols (maps, etc.) to orient readers/provide context; and 6) provide a means of opening dialogue with site creators (58).


Chapter 7 – “Share Control” – James P. Zappen

  • argues that designers must incorporate the users into the design process – not just the usability testing phase. This distributes control of the design process but can help designers avoid false leads and unproductive design cycles.
  • High user control via customizable interfaces and modular design increases user satisfaction (60).
  • In ceding control to users, design often becomes about quality control . . . especially as users produce/contribute a lot to the site (think: Facebook).
  • According to Z., designers can design affordances that increase user control . . . this invariably leads to deeper user engagement and more robust user experiences (62).
  • To share control, designers should: 1) understand that control is enacted in the use of technology and isn’t intrinsic to the user or designer; 2) provides resources for users to produce; 3) ensure users can perform tasks efficiently; 4) provide multiple options to maximize user choice; 5) provide resources for user-system and user-user interactions; 6) provide resources for user-user collaboration and QC; and 7) develop systems that support symbiotic relationships among designers, users and technologies (65).


Chapter 8 – “Support Interaction Among Users” – Robert Krull

  • This principle argues that users seek connection/interaction with other users. To facilitate this, designers should focus on creating opportunities to do just that and should develop protocols to facilitate interaction.
  • Evaluating what interaction technologies (BBs, Live Streams, VoIP, social profiles, IM, hangouts, etc.) are appropriate for what contexts of use is integral to increasing user interaction (and, hence, engagement).


Chapter 9 – “Create a Sense of Place” – Audrey G. Bennett

  • Place is created in web-based communication in two ways: 1) consistent look/feel creates a feeling of physical place; and 2) consistent look/feel also creates a sense of cultural place (73).
  • Place is established in verbal cues (content) and visual cues (typography, layout, shaping, grouping, style, image style).


Chapter 10 – “Plan to Continue Engagement” – Audrey G. Bennett

  • This principle argues that by inviting users to continue connections beyond the current experience and to move outside of formal methods of communication, you can help encourage engagement into the future. To do this, users should be invited to share, edit, and create new content.


The second half of the book recounts the five case studies from which the principles are drawn. Rich with method

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