In 1991, I was barely out of graduate school (okay 8 years). I had no kids and thus, had a brain that could move from one interesting thought to another and create compelling theories about my chosen discipline—technical communication. My grad school crush was Aristotle and not just because of his distinguished nose or provocative toga. I was enamored by “Rhetoric,” the art of persuasion, and I was convinced that the best technical documents were not merely informative, but used rhetorical techniques to “persuade” their audiences to learn software systems. My thesis included a rhetorical analysis of two user manuals, direct observations of users, and interviews with authors to argue my case.
By 1991, developers began improving the user experience of software in hopes that, if the interface was intuitive enough, people would not even need a user manual (or my technical writing services). I worked both as a technical writer and user requirements analyst at the time, and was almost always the first non-geek to get my hands on a system. It was then that I began building my theory about “Rhetoric and the User Interface.” User interfaces are communicative artifacts, I pronounced to my imaginary fan base, and as such, could employ the various means of persuasion to engage users.
I had intended to do a PhD dissertation, or write a book, or make a movie, or maybe just publish a seminal journal article on this, but I never got beyond a 15-minute presentation for a close circle of colleagues. I still have the “foils” or “transparencies” from that presentation, complete with early 90’s cartoon clip-art and a folder of notes and references. This was in the BB era (Before Blogging), before I could scratch that intellectual itch in public as I can today.
I used the “Rhetorical Triangle” to illuminate my point—and everything else in life. I was obsessed with that triangle. I was especially intrigued with the “I” of the triangle—the writer, the developer, the user or interface designer. I felt then—and still do—that the ego and biases of the creator subconsciously color the conception, design, or delivery of what the audience wants and needs. And today, whether talking with startups, small businesses, or large enterprises, I find myself revisiting the rhetorical triangle. Too often developers focus on “features” (the “IT”). When doing customer research, the “I” does not fully listen to what customers or users are saying. There simply is not enough focus on the “YOU,” the customer, or for that matter, the “CONTEXT,” which is to say the environment and conditions that surround the world of the customer, the business, and the products and services. You don’t want to wait until “marketing” to figure out how to persuade your customers to buy. You want the design of the product itself to appeal to customers.
I truly believe that if you recognize interaction between your business, your products, your customers as a rhetorical situation, you are on a path to better products and service design. Have I lost my mind? Or could it be that, now that my babies are off to college, my brain has returned? What do you think?