Collapsing the User Centered Rhetorical Triangle: Designer as “Victim”

In User-Centered Design: A Rhetorical Theory of Computers and Other Mundane Artifacts, Robert Johnson uses various adaptations of the triangular communication diagram to illustrate the relationships between and among the different entities involved in user-centered design scenarios. While the diagram itself seems to give equal weight (as least visually and spatially) to the artifact/system, artisans/designers, users, and user tasks/system actions, Johnson’s methodology is based on what Clay Spinuzzi refers to as the “designer-as-victim” trope (from Tracing Genres Through Organizations: A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design, 2003).

User-centered rhetorical triangle from Johnson’s User-Centered Design

Spinuzzi claims that many user-centered design theories (not just Johnson’s) view users as helpless victims that must be rescued by designers who swoop in to create (and/or improve) tools and technologies that allow otherwise disempowered users to do their jobs. Spinuzzi is in alignment with Johnson in that he believes users possess a wealth of local, situated, and tacit knowledge that must be teased out to inform design (which aligns with Johnson). But while Johnson sees users as passively possessing this type of knowledge which designers must proactively draw out, Spinnuzi sees users as actively engaged and empowered innovators who adapt their activities and artifacts to take them beyond the limitations of the system at any given point in time.

By understanding the underlying reasons that users create these genres of activity and re-usable artifacts, designers can gain valuable insight about the limitations of the products they make, and thus iterate them more appropriately based on user adaptations and innovations. Spinuzzi uses Bakhtin’s notions of centrifugal and centripetal force to illustrate how users’ adaptive genres typically emerge centrifugally, reaching outside the system to accommodate their needs through external means, and then later are absorbed back into the system centripetally as designers formalize them internally.

As Spinuzzi points out, the time and labor required to do genre tracing work is significant, and is often antithetical to the efforts of many software development organizations to innovate in an agile manner. Genre tracing requires designers to undertake many hours of observations and interviews, after which they often code and analyze the data, which may involve various types of media, such as handwritten notes, typed notes, audio files, video footage, etc. The interpretation of that all the data must then be converted into design recommendations or specifications.

The Food For Thought break room project that I have recently undertaken provides me with an alternative approach to understanding the tacit knowledge and “inarticulate needs” (Wikipedia entry on innovation) that innovation requires. By situating myself as manager/buyer/marketer of our company’s employee break room, I am immersing myself within a context of knowledge and activity that requires me to use our retail automation system in the same type of real-world scenario (albeit on a much smaller scale) as our users/customers to do the same type of work they do on regular basis (ordering, receiving, inventory counts, shelf labels, promotions, marketing, sales analysis, new product trials, etc) using the very systems that my team designs.

By becoming a user-victim while simultaneously designing the system, I am effectively hoping to collapse the user-centered rhetorical triangle by assuming this dual persona. Perhaps this approach will also help to collapse (reduce) the time it takes to convert the tacit knowledge of the user (my knowledge now) into appropriate internal system features. That is, perhaps the yo-yo path of centrifugal-to-centripetal can be shortened significantly so that a more agile and appropriate product innovation process can follow.

Now that I am almost a week into the project, I see that Johnson’s trope of “user-as-disempowered-victim” and Spinuzzi’s view of “user-as-empowered-innovator” may both be simultaneously valid approaches, especially now that I am simultaneously an actual user and a designer. The (dis)empowerment seems to reside somewhere in the hybrid nature of this dual perspective.


About burtaycock

Father of 2 great boys, interaction designer, doodler, student of life.
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