Week 11 – User-Centeredness in Computer Documentation

Johnson, Bob. “User-Centeredness, Situatedness, and Designing the Media of Computer Documentation.” In ACM Eighth International Conference on Systems Documentation, 55-61,1990.


Johnson’s article on user-centeredness in designing computer documentation begins with an emphasis on the danger of such a philosophy.  He suggests that the phrase “user-centeredness” could become “at best, empty rhetoric, and, at worst . . . could serve to undermine the humanitarian goals of a user-centered ethic” (55).  His dual purpose in writing the article is to:

1) focus on a clear understanding of what user-centeredness means in regards to

2) discuss how to design for the different media of computer documentation.

Johnson argues that “the ineffectiveness of systems lies in the miscalculations and poor planning of the designers” rather than a reflection on the competency of the consumers (56).  Much documentation is written to reflect “what the designer views as the important components” instead of taking the true user into account (56).  In regards to a text-centered approach as an option for good document design, Johnson comments that the chief drawback is that the approach focuses on “how well readers comprehend and follow printed text” which can limit the document’s effectiveness (57).  Rather, centering on the user’s situation focuses attention to the user and the user’s environment.  The user-centered view continues outward by then analyzing:  tasks and actions of the user, the user’s activity with the medium, and the design of the documentation (57-58).  Additionally, Johnson suggests representing the rhetorical framework of user-centered documentation (users, writers, and task/action) within the broader scope of global contexts and situations, thus “giv[ing] computer documentation a broader . . . and more relevant structure” (59).

Reading this article jogged mental connections between several pieces we have read so far this semester.  His emphasis on the ineffectiveness of some document designs reminded me of Cooper’s “Designing for Pleasure”; like Cooper, Johnson argues that when the specific user is “far removed from the central concerns of the system design, [the user] is left with the task of reconstructing the entire system into his or her own image of what has been passed on from the system image” (56).  Additionally, I found it important to remember that in today’s age of technical communication, much of our work will be formatted for web-based or screen-based viewing; factors such as “eye strain, impatience, poor resolutions, etc. all play a role in the difficulties of reading the computer screen” (57).  Therefore, the way content is managed for a website is directly correlated to whether users can easily “browse, access, skim and jump from screen to screen” or whether the content requires them the read large chunks of text for extended periods of time.  How would having a user-centered approach to computer documentation be effective in specific cultural situations which have technology constraints?


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