Technical communicator: author and extreme usability

Posted: March 2, 2009 in Readings, Review, School, Usability
Tags: , , , , ,

Though not yet finished my reading for this week, I wanted to blog about two of the articles I am reading. The first is by Jennifer Daryl Slack, David James Miller, and Jeffrey Doak. It’s called “Technical Communicator as Author: Meaning, Power, Authority.” The second is “Extreme Usability and Technical Communication” by Bradley Dilger. Both are within Critical Power Tools edited by J. Black Scott, Bernadette Longo, and Katherine V. Wills.

So, first Slack Miller and Doak.Starting off with a quote from Foucault, the authors immediately produce some interesting ideas. First and foremost, they say that “Rather than authors producing certain discourses, certain discourses are understood to produce authors” (25). An interesting idea, putting more power in the hands of the discourse and less in the author. Of course, what they are suggesting is that not every discourse has an author; some just have scribes.

This brings to mind the ideas of John Logie in “I have no Predescessor to Guide My Steps,” when he writes that the term Author is too heavily meaning laden, and needs to be allowed the death that Roland Barthes tried to give it. We should instead pick up a less volatile word, like ‘composer.’

Slack et al. go on to discuss three main views of communication (transmission, translation, and articulation), discussing the values each is steeped in, and what each requires for communication to be considered ‘successful.’

They do present a few bits that, did I consider myself a technical writer, would bother me. They say “Technical writers are not seen as adding or contributing to meaning. In fact, if they are, they are not doing their job!” and “the technical writer is merely a surrogate coder,” and that therefore “Power, then, must be understood as possessed by the sender and measured by the ability of the message to achieve the desired result in the receiver” (31). I’m not suggesting that they are wrong, nor that they are insulting technical writers. These things would bother me more because of their truth than anything else.

Good technical writing, as Longo suggests, is invisible. But I don’t think that means the author of technical writing has no presence or agency. The analogy of invisibility may be better than Longo intended. The Ring of Gyges, in Plato’s Republic (book 2) makes a person invisible. They cannot be seen. But still they act. In fact, the agency that remains, having removed the culpability, is dangerous and overtly powerful. Perhaps the same could be said about technical writers. Maybe tech writers have all the more power because people don’t see them as having any.

This idea seems to be supported by Slack et al., wwhen they write that “Technical communicators are authors, even when they comply with the rules of discourse that deny them that recognition” (42). Just because their presence can’t be seen doesn’t mean it isn’t there and isn’t important.

Moving on now to Dilger’s article… I have to say that there was a bit of nostalgia for me reading this. Bradley was my thesis advisor, and many of the sources he quoted were sources he pointed me towards and that helped me a great deal. Dilger’s article investigates the connection between ‘ease’ and ‘extreme usability.’  While ease is a part of usability (and vice versa), he cautions that they are not one in the same thing. As Dilger says, “extreme usability is derived from more robust concepts of usability [than just ease]” (48).

He does acknowledge that ease is a foundational part of most concepts of usability, particularly in consumer culture (50), and that “Like ease, extreme usability encourages out-of-pocket rejection of difficulty and complexity, displaces agency and control to external experts, and represses critique and critical use of technology in the name of productivity and efficiency” (52).

Here I am a bit uncertain. I think that Dilger is suggesting that ease is more important than extreme usability, that the pursuit of extreme usability leads to problems, to enabling people to be technologically stupid, needing the help of experts who “know better” (56).  He also says that “extreme usability leaves little room for reading and writing technical communication” (57), which seems counter to ease: good technical writing should be easy to read and at least appear to be easy to write.

But I don’t think he’s saying that ease and extreme usability are distinct and separate things. He does say that “the exclusion of cultural factors reinforces the invisibility of power relations associated with the perspective on technology and ease at the heart of extreme usability” (63, my emphasis). This suggests that ease is a large part of extreme usability.

I think, in all, what he’s suggesting is that maybe extreme usability is TOO extreme. We can’t develop a list of ‘best practices’ to be followed dogmatically, as that would not be user centered (65-66). Dilger points out that blogs don’t follow any kind of best practices (66), but are their own genre which works on its own terms (as, hopefully, this one does).

The clincher for my belief is one of the last lines in the article. Dilger writes that “Technical communicators cannot afford to allow extreme concepts of usability to undermine the continued growth of user-centered processes of writing and design” (66). This seems pretty clearly to be suggesting that while usability is important and ease is important, and the two do cross over, maybe we should avoid going to extremes. Extreme usability may have its place, but it is also very dangerous in its capacity to undermine user-centeredness, which Dilger seems to think is the most important (and I can’t say I disagree).


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