Opel & Rhodes – Beyond Student as User

Opel, D. S. and J. Rhodes (2018). “Beyond Student as User: Rhetoric, Multimodality, and User-Centered Design.” Computers and Composition 49: 71-81.

               User-centered design (UCD) as a concept has begun to enter composition studies, particularly through scholar-teachers of technical communication. We question further incorporation, specifically the collision course of industry-driven language such as efficiency and expediency and the potential positioning of students as users in the composition classroom. We argue that this positioning places us in unproductive opposition to multimodal composition. Rather than a wholesale incorporation of UCD into the composition classroom, we outline a theory +play approach that combines scholarship in rhetoric, speculative design, and multimodal composition. This approach, we argue, better aligns with the political and social investments of Johnson’s (1998) theory of user-centered technology, in which our students are critical makers and engaged citizens in the public sphere.

  • “The end of an art is not a product, but the use made of an artistic construct” (71).
  • There’s a great recap early on in this article on the relationship among User-Centered Design (UCD), usability studies and UXD. Authors claim that usability made its way into rhetoric and composition through tech comm (72).
  • The authors as, “what warrants undergird ‘effecientcy’ and ‘engagement’ in a ‘user-centered’ model?” (73). The authors claim there’s a central tension between the warrants rooted in Rhet/Comp (postmodernism, social constructivism) and UCD (usable technologies). As they note, “[I]t is difficult to resolve the tension between a process of determining one tested, empirically correct path for optimized use by a universal, centralized user, versus the impossibility of such a determination or systemization of meaning-making” (ibid). ***I’d hazard something here: UXD is about choosing the best, most rhetorically effective design in the face of the myriad audiences designers face. It isn’t about getting it “right” for one user – it’s about getting it as useful as possible for as many people as possible.
  • The authors object to the use of “user” in the context of composition instruction inasmuch as it positions the student as consumer. If we accept the definition of UCD provided in the bullet above, it is easy to see why this positioning of the student is possibly damaging and certainly instrumentalist.
  • Criticisms of UCD: 1) ethic of expediency; and 2) ethic of effeciency.
  • Central criticism: “in bringing of UCD into the fold of Rhet/Comp, certain industry discourses have become so ubiquitous that design and use of technology is tied inextricably to accumulation of capital” (74).
  • Solution: “We offer an approach to UCD that incorporates rhetorical theory, multimodeal composition pedagogy, and LCD for the shaping of ethical action with, rather than efficient consumption of, emerging technologies” (ibid).
  • 3 areas of overlap with usability & Rhet/Comp (a la Miller-Cochran & Rodrigo 2009): 1) accessibility & disability; 2) designing online writing instruction; and 3) application of usability research methods to rhetorical study (74).
  • The section on ethics, technology and development is super – well-researched and well-articulated.
  • The authors note that, “This positioning of UCD in the composition classroom places us in unproductive opposition to co-constructive, active pedagogies at the heart of composition studies. Further, this positioning places us in opposition to what we know of rhetoric as an embodied, relational, and ethical negotiation of symbolic systems” (76). I don’t know if I agree with the positioning of UCD itself as inherently an exercise in expediency. Maybe what is needed is UX-process in the process of designing the class itself – a co-constructive classroom design experience that relies on UX methods to more accurately assess student needs – wouldn’t that be a radically democratic, co-constitutive, active pedagogical model? The authors note as much in the next paragraph – I wonder if there’s some antiquated notions of what UXD looks like on the ground . . . maybe more “consumer research” than UXD is at work in their definition/characterization?
  • “Rhetoric for UCD in composition studies, then, must be embodied, relational, ethical, and playful” (75).
  • Recommendations for a multimodal UCD pedagogy: 1) Learn a variety of rhetorical theories that will assist in the critical making of and intervention in complex public spheres; 2) Examine how and why industry rhetoric (expediency, efficiency, engagement) around ‘users’ shapes the possibilities and limitations of participation in public life; 3) Interrogate the co-constructive, co-implicated points of the rhetorical triangle (writer, audience, text) or quadrangle (add medium); 4) Consider how industry rhetoric shapes technological ‘choices’; 5) Investigate the tactics of resistance to systems of power; 6) Engage in intellectual and ethical action in regard to industry rhetoric; and 7) Make believe (78-9).

Key Sources in Article:

  • Redish, Janice. (2010). Technical communication and usability: Intertwined strands and mutual influences. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 53(3), 191–201.
  • Johnson, Robert R. (1998). User-centered technology: A rhetorical theory for computers and other mundane artifacts. Albany: SUNY Press
  • Salvo, Michael J. (2001). Ethics of engagement: User-centered design and rhetorical methodology. Technical Communication Quarterly, 10(3), 273–290.
  • Scott, J. Blake. (2008). The practice of usability: Teaching user engagement through service-learning. Technical Communication Quarterly, 17(4), 382–412.
  • Lauer, Claire, & Brumberger, Eva. (2016). Technical communication as user experience in a broadening industry landscape. Technical Communication, 63(6), 248–264.
  • Miller-Cochran, Susan, & Rodrigo, Rochelle (Eds.). (2009). Rhetorically rethinking usability: Theories, practices, and methodologies. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
  • Potts, Liza. (2015). Archive experiences: A vision for user-centered design in the digital humanities. In J. Rodolfo, & W. Hart-Davidson (Eds.), Rhetoric and the digital humanities (pp. 255–263). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.