The man behind the curtain

One less conventional way to look at online design, digital rhetoric, and their resulting usability is from a humanistic and psychological standpoint. Donald A. Norman’s “Design of Everyday Things” hits this point well. His book discusses the psychology behind everyday objects and actions, human knowledge and capacity, and design that shapes our daily world. While Norman’s theme may center around objects and physical usability, many of the principles and theories he suggests can be used to describe online usability as well. Like I discussed in my last post, “Field Overview,” the modern, digital realm of writing evolved from physical writing and still shares some characteristics with traditional writing. The specific commonality Norman highlights is how humans physically interact with and mentally understand discourse in all media.

A major point I want to focus on from Norman’s book comes from Chapter 2, “The Psychology of Everyday Actions.” This chapter explains the human nature behind how we interact with objects (but also with writing). Norman breaks down that “everyone forms theories (mental models) to explain what they have observed . . . in the absence of external information, people are free to let their imaginations run free as long as the mental models they develop account for the facts as they perceive them” (1998, p. 39). In my next post, “Navigating the digital world,” I expand upon this same idea that Norman presents about audience stance and the perceptions people carry with them as they interpret visual rhetoric. Our “changing literacies” stem from recognizing “how the order of designs and the contexts of reading all comes from culturally framed experiences with literacy” (Hock, 2003, p. 633-34). Diverse audiences bring their own interpretations and experiences to the maturing digital landscape of writing.

This realization is critical in reaching an online audience effectively: writers must recognize the audience’s current skills with technology in order to teach them how to navigate his/her unfamiliar digital creation while still including the known fundamentals of rhetoric. By understanding the blind spots and biases present in human nature, digital writers and rhetoricians can better navigate and teach the digital literacy of today. Going along with this newfound need to teach in digital spaces, writers must be aware of the basic structure of an action: “the goal, what is done to the world, the world itself, and the check of the world” (Norman, 1998, p. 46). Writers’ digital actions include building websites, writing blogs, sharing videos, commenting on social media, and so on. Each of these “actions” requires several steps of intent, interaction, and result. While Norman presents a plethora of forward-thinking phenomena and trends, considering the underlying human action/interaction with regards to user experience and online usability is most critical.


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