“Ethics of Engagement: User-Centered Design and Rhetorical Methodology,” A Brief Summary and Notes


Michael J. Salvo writes that in technical communication, there has been a shift of observing users to participating with them. This article investigates 3 examples of participatory design: Pelle Ehn’s participatory design method, Roger Whitehouse’s design of tactile signage for blind users, and the design of an online writing program.
“Participatory design” is better than “user-centered design” because “participatory design” is more dialogic, which means it’s more focused on the relationship between designer and user instead of just the user (or just the designer). [But why is this article subtitled “User-Centered Design”?]
Some key terms in this article are as follows:
  • Democratic workplace
  • Two-way communication
  • Collaboration
  • Interaction
  • Negotiation
  • User-collaborators

Dialogic ethics, a two-way way of thinking, comes from Martin Buber’s book, I and Thou, in which Buber denounces the objectification of the human. When we treat one another as means, he says, we create an I-to-it relationship, whereas when we treat one another as ends, we create an I-to-you relationship, or an I-Thou relationship. We should always treat one another as human beings, and that is a dialogic relationship. Salvo writes, “When one engages another person as an individual, as a person, one recognizes the humanity of the other. This recognition makes it possible to know the other’s needs, which is the point of participatory design: to know from the other’s perspective what is needed to improve the usability of the design” (276).
Mikhail Bakhtin is interested in this concept, too, from a linguistic standpoint. And where Bakhtin is in linguistics, Emmanuel Levinas (Buber’s student) is concerned with identity when he says that the ethical self is one’s ability to see the humanity in others. One should see the self in the other and the other in the self. [That reminds me of Burke’s “Four Master Tropes,” as well as Robert Solomon’s philosophical work about human emotion emotions.]
When we author actions, we become responsible for them (276). Participatory design is to know the other’s needs and to see from their perspective.
[Note here the great irony of a poorly written article or book: it assumes authority by virtue of being written, but if it is poorly written, then it contradicts itself! That’s was the irony that Plato called attention to when he was writing in the Phaedrus!]
Dialogic ethics thus becomes a counter-statement to Katz’s ethic of expediency. In short, a dialogue is listening and speaking. Both. Not just one. For all participants. Design should work the same way. Thus, users ultimately should have a hand in design (288). 

[I wonder if the amount of listening which needs to be done is proportional to a person’s ultimate ethos. Listening is receiving and learning. Speaking is teaching and presenting and showing. Speaking is promoting something.
There are times when we should listen more than we speak and other times when we should speak more than we listen. It depends on the situation, but the bottom line here is that we treat others as agents and not objects. What if others are treating us as objects? Then what? Then we have a duty to treat ourselves as an agent and get out of there. Also, we shouldn’t unduly silence ourselves as long as we say what is good.]

From Michael J. Salvo, “Ethics of Engagement: User‐Centered Design and Rhetorical Methodology,” Technical Communication Quarterly 10.3 (2001): 273‐290.