“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.

Rude, “Mapping the Research Questions in Technical Communication,” A Brief Note

While Technical Communication is commonly defined as a practice and not a field of research, any well-established field should have general research questions. So, what are the research questions in the field of Technical Communication? This is a difficult question because the field is a hybrid of many different fields, such as rhetoric, design, speech, psychology, education, computer science, etc. But questions are important, and good questions generate more questions.
To find the answer, Rude looks at 109 books, analyzing them on the large-scale, to see what questions the field is asking. Rude believes that Technical Communication’s main question is this: how do texts (defined broadly) mediate knowledge, values, and action in social and professional contexts?
From this question, Rude examines 4 related questions that divide the field into 4 main areas (though some of the questions can be in more than one area):
Questions of
  • Disciplinarity: Who are we? Why are we here? What is our history, and what is our future?
  • Pedagogy: What should we teach and how?
  • Practice: How should texts be ethical and effective? What are the best practices?
  • Social Change: How do texts function as agents of knowledge making, action, and change?

Much energy has already gone to pedagogy and practice, but “a sustainable academic field is built on research questions that develop knowledge” (205). In other words, what are these researchers trying to discover? [But wait a minute: is Rude not implying a separation between knowledge and pedagogy and practice here? If so, why? Do we need to?]

From Carolyn D. Rude, “Mapping the Research Questions in Technical Communication,” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 23.2 (2009); 174‐201.

Todd’s Burkean Invention in Technical Communication, A Brief Note


While technical communicators and scholars have called for more studies between the intersections of rhetoric and technical communication, in this article, Todd writes that they haven’t done much with the canon of invention, and what has been done with that canon comes only from classical rhetoric. His article discusses what Burke has to add to these discussions. The article focuses on how Burke might be used in the technical communication classroom and other settings, and mentions several Burkean terms like the pentad, ambiguities, propoedentic or nimbleness of thought, limits of agreement, joycing or what Todd calls etymological extension, finding the complex in the simple, expanding the circumference, and four master tropes, all of which are shown to be invention strategies. Personally, I am surprised that Burke’s notion of form is missing here, but I will have to perhaps write something that adds to this discussion as well.

Jeff Todd. 2000. Burkean Invention in Technical Communication. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, January 2000; vol. 30, 1: pp. 81-96.

Miller’s Treating Professional Writing as Social Praxis, A Brief Note

While other scholars have used many theories to talk about professional writing and to think about text and context, in this article, Thomas Miller draws on classical rhetoric because it justifies a social and ethics of technical and professional writing. Technical writing, after all, has a strong emphasis on purpose, practicality, and the fulfillment of goals. For civic humanists like Aristotle and Isocrates, the emphasis was on making a morally good person who demonstrated phronesis, or practical wisdom, the capacity to say the right thing at the right time, solving problems when perfect knowledge wasn’t possible. Miller writes, “For Aristotle (and for civic humanists generally), practical wisdom is based on a broad-based understanding of the shared experiences and traditions of the community that enables us to discover what is best in a particular situation” (57-58).

So, there should be no division between theory and practice. Professionals run in to problems when they know more than they can put into practice. They have to learn common sense and how to apply principles in order to be successful. Knowledge is not an object, but is socially constructed.

Civic humanism manages the so-called divide between theory and practice. We can’t pretend that rhetoric is just theory whereas composition is the techne, the practice of that theory. Technical writing is social action. Writing is not amoral, and neither science nor writing is free from values (63). Miller sounds a lot like James Berlin’s 1988 argument in several parts of this article. Humans can’t be reduced to information. We’re much more than that.

An uncritical but fragmented knowledge can be dangerous to humanism (69). Separating context and text can be, too. We should teach technical and professional writing as social praxis so that it becomes more than just a skills class–so that it becomes practical in the most important sense of that word.

Miller, Thomas P. 1991. “Treating Professional Writing as Social Praxis” JAC. Vol. 11, 1: pp. 57-72.

Miller’s Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing, A Brief Note

Miller clearly explains her argument in these terms:

“I wish to argue that the common opinion that the undergraduate technical writing course is a ‘skills’ course with little or no humanistic value is the result of a lingering but pervasive positivist view of science.”
The positivist view that Miller is arguing against seems to be similar to, if not the same thing that Burke calls semantic meaning and argues against in “Semantic and Poetic Meaning.” Positivism reduces science to the testable, and words are not science but they get in the way of knowledge. From that perspective, only sensory data is pure knowledge. 
For Miller, positivism has unfortunately influenced the teaching of technical writing in at least 4 ways.
  1. First, we talk about clarity, but the term clarity is not objective because we can’t actually explain what it means.
  2. Second, we talk about style and form without talking about invention. Does science invent? Or discover?
  3. Third, we teach that tone should be objective and impersonal, but there are real people reading our writing.
  4. Fourth, we talk about levels of audience.
But philosophers don’t believe in positivism, anymore, and rhetoric is actually epistemic. In other words, words are themselves forms of knowledge, and knowledge is created. Science is about symbols and arguments, not just about material things. In short, science is a form of rhetoric.
Since communication occurs in communities, we should talk about understanding in technical communication and not just skills because discussions on skills tend to emphasize the writer, whereas a focus on understanding emphasizes both writer and reader. And that focus on both writers and readers is necessary because we don’t want to neglect the one while privileging the other.

From Carolyn R. Miller, “A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing.” Johndan Johnson‐Eilola and Stuart A. Selber, Eds., Central Works in Technical Communication, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Johnson’s “User-Centered Technology,” A Brief Note

In User-Centered Technology: A Rhetorical Theory for Computers and Other Mundane Artifacts, Robert Johnson takes James Kinneavy’s application of I.A. Richard’s rhetorical triangle and appropriates it to technology, concluding that technical communication and usability studies can benefit from centering technology on users instead of designers. Users are practitioners, producers, and citizens, he writes (46).

In other words, rhetorical theory can be used to talk about artifacts in technical communication and usability studies. Technology, like speeches, are designed for users and not designers. But, historically, designers were privileged over users, and to some degree, they still are, but they shouldn’t be because the audience plays a key role that cannot be neglected: the end of technology is users–people, human beings. The rhetorical situation triangle thing of speaker, audience, and purpose, should be used to talk about and think about technology.

In short, users are practitioners, producers, and citizens.

Here’s the citation for the book:
Johnson, R. R. (1998). User-Centered Technology: A Rhetorical Theory for Computers and Other Mundane Artifacts. State University of New York Press.