October 16, 2004

Pity the Poor User

I've begun reading Tracing Genres through Organizations by Clay Spinuzzi. I bought it because I think genre theory is potentially the most-important-yet-least-appreciated topic in information architecture.

Clay approaches the issue from his background in rhetoric, and the practice of technical communication. Still, he spends his first chapter laying out a cogent and fairly persuasive critique of user-centered design practice. The gist of it is this: the writings promoting user-centered design theory and practice overwhelmingly cast the user as a victim, subjected to the evils of a system over which they have no control. By studying these victims, the heroic user-centered designer can provide a far superior system that takes into account the actual work practices of the users. Clay recognizes that: a) it's condescending to treat users as victims unable to influence their work situation, and b) UCD simply replaces one form of centralized control with another.

Though I find elements of his arguments flawed, I think calling into question the gospel of user-centered design is a necessary tonic.

The most interesting insights the chapter offers are:
a) an acknowledgment that users are often quite innovative in how they overcome challenges in their local work environments, and are often heroes themselves.
b) that UCD doesn't typically address the fundamental problem, which is the monolithic nature of any designed system. Yes, it sucks when systems are developed without any insight into user behavior, but having a monolithic system designed according to the principles of UCD sucks only marginally less, because such approaches inevitably don't take into account the immense variety of small local innovations that people develop to get their work done. There's an assumption within UCD that one-size-fits-all; the methods (particularly the modeling) lead to singular solutions that attempt to collapse variegated field research into a simple set of requirements from which to build.

Another name for that approach is "lowest common denominator."

This relates to the problem of cluster analysis in how its output enforces a single view of content organization, though there's plenty of evidence to suggest that different folks utilize different approaches.

Posted by peterme at 03:10 PM | Comments (5)

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Posted by peterme at 11:59 AM | Comments (3)


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