Critical Power Tools Chapter Two
Extreme Usability and Technical Communication by Bradley Dilger
In Chapter Two of Critical Power Tools Bradley Dilger argues, basically, that technology is killing us softly. In differentiating between technical practices of “usability” and “extreme usability” he argues that, though potentially user-centered, the ideology of “extreme usability” that has come to dominate discourses on technology draws our focus away from the mechanisms behind technology and technical discourse and obscures issues of labor, power, and ideology which both users and technical communicators must remain aware of. If usability is like a power plant, providing users a light by which to navigate the dark recesses of technological communication, extreme usability is the gigantic mutated Godzilla-esque monster rampaging across the technical landscape, leveling any attempts at meaningful discourse. At the risk of making things too easy on the reader, here is my customarily bulleted breakdown of the argument:
Dilger writes that “Practitioners of extreme usability repeatedly invoke ease…in their definition of usability. This is no accident: extreme usability is, in fact, usability made easy, a simplified usability profoundly and problematically distinct from the robust, more carefully developed concepts of usability from which it was derived” (Location 690). The problem with this growing ethic of “keeping it simple” lies, according to Dilger, in its origins. The concept of ease, he writes, is historically tied to capitalism and the ethic of productivity connected to modern technology. Where before technology was valued for productivity in the workplace and concepts of ease were rooted in the home and leisure (and in the feminine), the rise of automated technologies saw a shift in ideology when the ease and simplicity of technological operation became tied directly to the productivity of the user. Dilger writes that “As more automatic or ‘computerized’ products appeared, marketing emphasized not only labor-saving properties, but ease of use” (Location 739) and that, despite resistance, “opponents of usability were unable to overcome the massive power of ease, and it has become the most dominant force shaping the design and use of technological systems – following the transactional logic of consumer culture in which it first developed” (751).
The danger of this is that, as technology becomes tied to more and more aspects of our lives (as with email), the lines between technology and ideology begin to blur. Dilger argues that extreme usability “extends the ideological framework of ease… Like ease, extreme usability encourages an out-of-pocket rejection of difficulty and complexity, displaces agency and control to external experts, and represses critique and critical use of technology in the name of productivity and efficiency” (751). In short, ease of use leads to relentlessly pragmatic thinking, which cannot be disrupted because complications are not pragmatic. This removal of agency from the user may seem more gentle than older models, but the disempowerment remains nonetheless.
At the risk of going against the very complications that Dilger calls for (now that I think about it, my approach to this blog has been extraordinarily influenced by the need to efficiently “produce” in a short period of time), the solution to this problem lies not so much in what to do as in what not to do.
When streamlining becomes the ultimate goal of technical communication, Dilger argues “the effects of extreme usability become recursive: By advancing a concept of usability shaped by the ideology of ease, the methodologies of usability come under attack as well” (828). Put simply, if ease is king, people will believe everything should be easy (and cheap), including the process of making things easier.
The solution to this recursion, then, is to avoid “best practices” approaches to teaching usability, since this approach “is made easier not only by reducing its cost, time, and complexity, but by restricting or excluding consideration of cultural forces from usability testing and assessment” (Location 878). According to Dilger “if the intent of usability is the development of user-centered technological systems and practices of communication, then despite its difficulty, we need to engage culture” when dealing with and teaching technology (Location 900). We need to root technology not in context-free (and thus simpler) locations like the lab, but in subjective, contextual environments of the users’ everyday life.
There are, throughout the text, clear connections to Johnson’s concept of “user-centered technology.” Dilger cites Johnson directly in attacking the novice/expert binary inherent in extreme usability, and attempts to defend his methodology by arguing that “If we fail to explicity acknowledge culture in our definitions…we risk giving back recent gains in the popularity of user-centered development” (Location 923).
Chapter one seems to locate this idea of extreme usability in an older model of technical communication called the “translation view” which demands that, for communication to be “easy” it must pre-suppose the neutrality of scientific and capitalistic communications (Location 633). It may be easier to ignore the ethics of our technologies, but this can have dire results. The consequences of this are explored further in chapter three where Moses and Katz argue that email’s ease of use is the result of, and the extension of, a capitalistic emphasis on efficiency where “Ideologically, work and leisure have become virtually interchangeable” (Location 1049). Due to the recurring emphasis on productivity and the encroaching “ease” of email, we now, as a consequence, even want our interpersonal relationships to be effortless and quick!
My question, as usual, is heretically pragmatic. In calling for a more “situated” method of testing and writing about technology, Dilger writes that, in spite of the difficulty, teaching a slower, less ease-centric method of technological communication is the only way to cleave to Johnson’s original vision of user-centered pedagogy (Location 953). However, as the book’s introduction points out, the University system itself is not immune to the allure of extreme usability: “The corporatization of the university – including the move toward more (economically) efficient pedagogical models…can work to squelch critique on an institutional level” (location 207). Given the short timeframe in which we, as instructors, can interact with our students, and considering the material and economical demands posed by University administration, where do we locate the responsibility for implementing the changes posed by Dilger? Is it the duty of the teacher to “sneak” critical and cultural discussion into the curriculum between the pre-approved best practices model? Or would Dilger put the onus on administrators to push more directly for change? How do you fight the system when the system is so seductively easy?