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.

A Short Story from a Book about Technology

The book is called User-Centered Technology: A Rhetorical Theory for Computers and Other Mundane Artifacts, but don’t let the title turn you off–it’s a pretty good book. But while theory books seldom have short stories in them, here is one of the ones in this book, written in first-person by the author, Robert R. Johnson:

“I don’t think that I could have been much more than ten or eleven years old, but the memory is nevertheless pungently clear. I was standing on the corner of Fifth and Broadway in Gary, Indiana (the town where I was ‘born and bred’ as they say), waiting for my father to come out of the building where he had an office. As I waited, I watched a man dressed in a doorman’s uniform step from the front door of the First National Bank with a large push broom in his hand. Once out on the sidewalk, he began sweeping and continue to do so until he had whisked a significant amount of white-gray, dusty material out to the curb. He then pushed the dusty residue down the length of the sidewalk, off the curb, into the street, and finally into a storm-sewer grate where it fell quickly out of sight. The doorman returned to the main entrance of the bank, and with the broom still in his hand, held the door for a customer who stepped out onto the temporarily clean sidewalk.

“Not long after the workman was done sweeping, my father appeared and we began walking to our car. On the way, I asked my father, ‘Why was that old man sweeping the sidewalk in front of the bank?’ ‘He does it to keep people from tracking the dirt into the bank,’ my father replied. ‘It helps to keep the carpets in the bank from getting dirty so fast.’ Still not completely satisfied with the answer, I continued, ‘Why does the bank sidewalk get dirty so fast?’ To answer this question, my father stopped, turned, and pointed his finger toward the north–directly at the main ‘Works’ of U.S. Steel that lay a scant five blocks away. ‘You see the smoke coming from the “Works?” [sic] There’s a lot of dust and dirt in that smoke, and it falls like rain on the downtown sidewalks every day and night. It’s especially thick when water is dumped on the hot steel after it comes out of the blast furnaces. The man at the bank is kept pretty busy keeping that dust out of the bank lobby.’

“Just then, I saw a large white-gray cloud appear over the ‘Works,’ and it was followed by a muffled roar. ‘There . . . there it is now. They’re pouring the water on the hot steel–thousands of gallons of it. There will be plenty more dust for him to sweep soon enough,’ he said as we turned back in the direction of the car. As we continued down the sidewalk, I noticed that the sky was changing color, to a sort of white-gray.”