Usability as a Rhetorical Ar/ct
The open-invite Multimedia User Group (MMUG) met on Friday, November 21 in the MATRF to (re)discover Usability as an act of rhetoric and a rhetorical art. Attendees ranged from students and faculty in the RCID program, to those in MAPC as well as the University’s concentration area of Human Factors within Psychology. The hour-long event was designed to inform those present about what usability is and what it can be used for.
What is Usability?
As part of the User-Centered Design methodology, usability is a holistic, humanistic approach to evaluating interfaces and user experiences in a variety of contexts. Although usability is widely used in industry as part of the product development process, and although its appropriation in this regard has to some extent made the method increasingly quantitative, usability is fundamentally a rhetorical art. Whether the artifact is a computer interface, a piece of cinema, a video game, or a performance support delivery system, usability offers a tool set which can be adapted and applied across multiple platforms in order to ensure that artifacts are useful, usable, and pleasurable for their intended audiences.
What Research Questions can User-Centered Design Methods Address?
Importantly, UCD methods (of which usability is one) can be used to inform any number of research studies. While the industry-standard software, Morae, is mainly used to study user behavior on computer interfaces (although its latest release does allow researchers to capture user interactions with physical artifacts such as cell phones and textbooks), the talk-aloud protocol approach which generates some of the richest feedback during such an interface analysis can be applied in myriad contexts. For example, Randy Nichols, one of the MMUG attendees mentioned his interest in curiosity-driven museum visitors. He wondered, “What factors shape a curious museum-goer’s navigational choices?” Using a portable eye-tracking device and a voice recorder, it would be possible not only to record the person’s running commentary on why they chose to investigate different areas of a museum, but also to capture which exhibits the person looked longest at and which were ignored. Museology, Way-finding (a facet of Information Design), and Experience Design, then, are disciplines which could be impacted by this UCD method.
In addition, Morae and the talk-aloud technique could be amazingly helpful in illuminating otherwise tacit processes involved in synthesizing research to compose texts intended for publication. In this vein, one might build a study around the inquiry, “What digital technologies or other inventional tools do people use to articulate insights gained from disparate research sources? How, in other words, do people get what’s in their head onto (electronic) paper?” Findings from a study like this could potentially add much to composition pedagogies.
How is Usability Rhetorical?
At its core, usability concerns itself with audiences (users) and contextual contingencies. Those who understand usability in this way (there are always others on an/other side of the matter) believe that UCD is a heuristic informed by a plurality of epistemologies, and they eschew the idea of fixity in human-interface analyses. Moreover, the deliverables usability tools produce can be viewed as persuasive texts. Whether it is a highlight video, a formative written report, or an Excel spreadsheet with screenshots and tallies of completion rates, investigators argue for their analyses and advocate for users based on the design recommendations they share, and the ways in which they cast their findings.
Where Can I Learn More About Usability?
Usability Bookshelf – Sponsored by the Usability and User Experience SIG, an STC community;
Usability.gov – A step-by-step guide to usability, beginning with definitions of the discipline, user research and interface testing methods, and data analysis pointers;
Usability Professionals’ Association – Links to resources, conferences, and research methods;
UTEST – A closed, private discussion community for usability professionals and scholars. The community admits members on an invitation-only basis, and consists of an application process. Please contact Tharon Howard for more information.