How Technical Communication Intersects with Technology and Civic Engagement

In this episode, Isidore Dorpenyo discusses how technical communicators can use discipline-in-practice to reach beyond organizations and strictly technical spaces. We talk about how TPC professionals can expand the horizon and affect issues such as social justice, public engagement, user experience, usability, document design, data, visualization, algorithms, localization, and more.

Airdate: June 7, 2022

Season 2 Episode 22 | 49 min

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Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:11.350] – Liz Fraley

Greetings, everyone. Welcome to Room 42. I'm Liz Fraley from Single-Sourcing Solutions. I'm your moderator. This is Janice Summers from TC Camp, she's our interviewer. And welcome to Isidore Dorpenyo, today's guest in Room 42.

[00:00:25.010] – Liz Fraley

Isidore Dorpenyo is an associate professor of professional writing and rhetoric at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He received his BA in English at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana in 2008, and his MS in rhetoric and technical communication at the Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan in 2013, his PhD in rhetoric theory and culture at Michigan Technological University in 2016, and his research focuses on election technology, international technical communication, social justice, user experience, public civic engagement, and localization.

[00:01:02.940] – Liz Fraley

He's the author of the book User Localization Strategies in the Face of Technological Breakdown. He has guest-edited two special issues, Technical Communication, Election Technology, and Civic Engagement for Technical Communication and Enacting Social Justice and Technical Communication for IEEE. He has published in Technical Communication Quarterly, Community Literacy Journal, the Journal of Business and Technical Communication, and the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication.

[00:01:30.640] – Liz Fraley

Today, he's here to help us start answering the question, “How does technical communication intersect with technology and civic engagement?” Greetings and welcome. We're so glad you're here.

[00:01:44.820] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Thank you. Thank you for having me. I'm so grateful for reaching out, and I'll say it again that you're doing wonderful work. Reaching out to scholars and helping to bridge the scholar's practitioner divide, that conversation ongoing. Thank you very much.

[00:02:10.710] – Janice Summers

Isidore, it is always a delight to talk with you. I always learn such interesting things from you. One of the things that really… When you think on it, when you think about elections, you really don't think about technical writing, right? You think about political rhetoric, but you don't think about technical writing. When you look at it, there is a hotbed of practical experience for a technical writer, right?

[00:02:40.980] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Exactly. That's what informs my scholarship. Elections managed by technical documents: voting ballots, mailing ballots, voter registration. These are technical documents. We need to pay attention to those. In most cases, when we talk about technical writing, we think about organizations and what writers do, but we also have to expand the definition of technical writing, especially definition of technology, not just looking at artifacts like computer, and those big things that are designed out there.

[00:03:30.930] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Scholars defined technology to include a lot of things. Reports are a form of technology because they shape, and we shape them and they shape us. That dualism that exists with technology—shaping and being shaped—that's what technical documents also do. They are not just mere documents. I tell my students about it. These are not mere documents. They shape, and ballots shape lecture processes.

[00:04:05.660] – Isidore Dorpenyo

 Why don't we expand the scope of our scholarship? Mostly because scholars have been advocating that we need to expand to public sphere, and expand beyond organizations to look at how we intersect with civic issues. We intersect with public conversations. These are some of the things that we can do to expand the scope of technical communication. I'm happy to be doing this kind of work.

[00:04:34.690] – Janice Summers

Right. The role of the technical communicator is to inform, right? What better thing than around an election? When you mentioned earlier about how it helps shape our actions, technical communications, because we're receiving information that's giving us information to make a decision, right? It's not a political-it's separating the whole political rhetoric from it. That the whole pure act of voting itself, right?

[00:05:09.610] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Yes. The act of voting in itself is participating in civic activities. We do participate in civic activities. So we must work to bring theory to such practices, right? To see that our theories are not just limited to organizations. Our theories can really help people understand their lived experiences. They understand what they do and why they do what they do, right?

[00:05:42.540] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Also to let our students know that, “Hey, we are not just limited to the organization, especially if we have to advocate for users. If we have to advocate for the marginalized, then we need to expand to see the various ways that people are marginalized.”

[00:05:59.240] – Isidore Dorpenyo

The electoral space is one way. Especially in America, it's one way that people that are being marginalized. Especially Black folks, people of color. Conversations about race and election is really rife. How can we, technical communicators, contribute to such conversations and inform people about such practices?

[00:06:23.280] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Also to get people to understand that, “Hey, you are not just participating. I'm going to vote, but you have to think critically about that form of participation. The various documents, and the various processes that make your participation possible.” We need to really interrogate those. If we want to have clean elections, if you want to advocate for democracy that's really, really representative, then there's a need to have such conversations.

[00:06:55.760] – Janice Summers

Well, right. It's one thing. Political, we make decisions. But then, one of the barriers is, “Well, how do we enact this decision? How do we execute? What's the procedure? I think that's where technical communication can really help make that procedure an even-playing field, instead of it being a barrier, right?

[00:07:19.050] – Isidore Dorpenyo


[00:07:19.860] – Janice Summers

Because how you-

[00:07:23.390] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Whitney Quesenbery is doing with civic design, is doing an awesome job bringing concepts of technical communication into the electoral sphere. The whole concept of civic design is we need to design documents that will make election very accessible to people. She's combining UX tools to help design ballots for electoral departments. Talking about voting ballots or mailing ballots, and all the documents that make elections possible. That's practice. That's theory meeting practice.

[00:08:06.970] – Isidore Dorpenyo

When we talk about politics and elections, the first discipline is all political science. Political science is the first discipline or computer science, but we don't really see technical communicators participating in election-related issues, because we are just limited to being mere scribes. “Oh, you are just a mere scribe.” That definition is no more that we are mere scribes. It's acknowledging that we are advocates, and we can make systems work.

[00:08:39.800] – Isidore Dorpenyo

That helping people to redesign systems, redesign actions to make systems really inclusive, systems equitable for people to just benefit for, that's the whole goal of technical communication, because one of our really, really core areas is to advocate for users, advocate for marginalized. There's been other technical communication who are using technical communications just like UX to redesign electoral documents, redesign election processes. It's really really helping give a human face to elections and making the electoral process really accessible to people.

[00:09:26.590] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Technical communicators, we would say, “We should not be just limited to organizations, but the civic space is a good place for us.” If, again, we want to expand our definition and expand what we do beyond organizations.

[00:09:41.710] – Janice Summers

Right. Now, are there some examples of some places or areas where they have started to make some changes to the content, to the documentation, and get technical writers involved to make improvements?

[00:09:59.370] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Civic design by Quesenbery is one area. They're really designing ballots for different election department from different states. They go around the country to work with election department to redesign election processes. They perform usability testing of existing documents, and then we help to redesign using UX and tech comm tools to do that. There are a lot of other things that they do that help or improve electoral system.

[00:10:42.540] – Isidore Dorpenyo

They have education materials and they organize some of these educational forums for election managers. They train them and talk more about how to redesign election documents. It's one of the organizations that is doing really well. If you want to know how technical communicators can really advocate election processes, it's looking at civic design by the Center for Civic Design, which is co-founded by Whitney Quesenbery.

[00:11:25.270] – Isidore Dorpenyo

The premise is that democracy is a design problem and technical organization are designers. Democracy is a design problem, so we just have to make elections work for everyone. The question will be, how can technical communicators contribute? When you talk about technical communicators, again, we are just limited to the design. What design tools help? What are ballots? Those are design tools we can analyze to review some of the inconsistencies in design, in voter ballots, and expose them and then work with election officials to revise.

[00:12:11.930] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Stacey Abrams' Fair Fight is also doing such an awesome job. But Stacey won't call herself a technical communicator. But website design, they're using their Fair Fight website to advocate for electoral issues. Technical communicators design communication tools, they design websites and manage websites.

[00:12:36.790] – Janice Summers

Yeah, websites are a big component of technical communication. If you're not thinking they are, they should be.

[00:12:44.060] – Isidore Dorpenyo

They should be.

[00:12:45.120] – Janice Summers


[00:12:46.940] – Isidore Dorpenyo

There are a lot of opportunities for technical communicators to engage in election process, we just haven't explored some of those. It's been my goal to help us think about elections in a different way and to see how technical communicators can be a part of it. That led me to study Garner's biometric system and technical communication also does talk a lot about technology design.

[00:13:16.290] – Isidore Dorpenyo

What do we use to design the tools? We use technology. One major area of technical communication is technology studies. We talk about technology, the technical or technic, the technology. Using biometric technology to enhance an electoral process became very interesting to me.

[00:13:41.630] – Janice Summers

Yeah. For those who haven't read your papers or your book, could you explain a little bit about Ghana's biometric technology? What happened there, just in a nutshell for people.

[00:13:52.910] – Isidore Dorpenyo

So Ghana gained independence in 1957 from Britain, and then we've been having elections for some time now. In 1992, we became really democratic, that's for the Republic of Ghana. Over the years, the electoral department noticed some malpractices, electoral malpractice like voters impersonating, over-voting, a lot of malpractices. In 2012, Ghana's Electoral Commission adopted a biometric technology to enhance the electoral process.

[00:14:43.960] – Janice Summers

Right, and try to minimize any-

[00:14:49.510] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Impersonation, voter discrepancies, and other things. But when we adopted, we as in Ghana, when we adopted the biometric technology and used it, we noticed that some of those issues reoccurred. There were still overvoting, still impersonation, and some of those things reoccurred.

[00:15:12.590] – Isidore Dorpenyo

2012, I wasn't in Ghana, so I couldn't vote, but I sat behind my computer listening to processes. But one thing that really led me to pursue that project was the breakdown of the biometric technology.

[00:15:28.670] – Janice Summers

Because they implemented this thing thinking, “Okay, well, this will improve and ensure our election integrity.”

[00:15:36.030] – Isidore Dorpenyo


[00:15:37.910] – Janice Summers

But It didn't have that effect.

[00:15:39.430] – Isidore Dorpenyo

It didn't have that effect. It mostly started breaking down because the biometric wasn't designed with Ghana's culture, Ghana's environment, Ghana's weather in mind. The technology couldn't withstand the heat.

[00:15:58.670] – Janice Summers

That was one of the really interesting things is the weather.

[00:16:02.510] – Isidore Dorpenyo

The weather.

[00:16:02.510] – Janice Summers

Yeah, even the weather.

[00:16:04.680] – Isidore Dorpenyo

It started breaking down, and it's also rejected some people. You go, you stand in a long queue, and Ghanaians love to vote. If voting will be tomorrow, some will start queuing today at 9:00 PM-

[00:16:18.410] – Janice Summers

To go vote.

[00:16:19.040] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Right, to go vote.

[00:16:19.040] – Janice Summers

They take their rights to vote seriously.

[00:16:19.040] – Isidore Dorpenyo

You queue for hours, and then you get to the election official and the machine, you're rejected. “What? For hours, I'm rejected just like that?”

[00:16:35.070] – Isidore Dorpenyo

But I also noticed that conversations and reports identified a pattern that the biometric technology rejected mostly people who use their hands to work like mechanics, farmers, fishmongers, because they lost the bridge that the biometric technology has to pick on. That here, the biometric technology, I would say, has a specific type of human encoded into it. The person who is to be accepted must have this perfect finger, must have this, must do this, must do that. But people use machetes in Ghana, so they lost some of those bridges that technology-

[00:17:23.040] – Janice Summers

Those ridges and valleys and the fingerprints were different. They're scarred and calloused hands.

[00:17:30.970] – Isidore Dorpenyo

It rejected most of them and became a problem. Because there was this law that, “No biometric, no vote.” If the biometric rejects you, you are not going to vote. That power was invested into the technology by the laws that were enacted by Parliament of Ghana. Some people were really rejected and they didn't like the idea.

[00:17:53.580] – Isidore Dorpenyo

As someone who was interested in one, technology studies, two, usability and user experience, and three, localization, I thought it was interesting for me to-

[00:18:04.610] – Janice Summers

Perfect storm.

[00:18:04.610] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Perfect for me to study this. That led me to explore Ghana's case. Then I also looked at the documents, the user manual and other things that accompanied the biometric-

[00:18:19.640] – Janice Summers

That the company that made the biometric equipment located someplace else on the planet.

[00:18:27.360] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Then the interesting thing about it is that because the biometric wasn't designed to be used for election purposes, they didn't have any user manual that could tell people how to use the biometric to vote. The EC had to rewrite a new user manual that will accompany the biometric to let people know, “Oh, this is how you have to use the biometric to register people to vote. This is what you have to do. This is what you have to do.”

[00:18:56.520] – Isidore Dorpenyo

That localization and users really using their creative ways to let technology work in their context became very important to me and relevant to my scholarship, mostly because it's moved conversations away from the designer as the expert who redesigns and makes changes to meet local targets. This is the case. Local users who had no contact with the designers are making changes and redesigning to make the technology fake because election day, the technology wasn't working and they had to do something-

[00:19:43.700] – Janice Summers

They had to figure out how to make it work.

[00:19:45.470] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Because if it didn't work, that would be another thing. If you share borders with countries that have experienced post-election violence, if you are sitting on that tenterhook, then you really, really want to be careful. If you are in a country where different meanings are read into electoral processes, then you really have to be careful because any wrong move will suggest a different thing and that could lead to-

[00:20:15.440] – Janice Summers

To be completely catastrophic and then violent.

[00:20:21.910] – Isidore Dorpenyo

It was a dicey situation, but they made things work. Then that leads back to this technical communication, that advocate, that the users. Who are users? Bob Johnson and other scholars who look at usability from a rhetorical perspective will say that users are not dummies. This is a tacit example to make you feel that, “Oh yeah, users are not dummies. Look at these users trying to redesign a user manual to help people use the technology.” They weren't part of the design process, but they are trying to make it work.

[00:21:01.810] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Technology started breaking down and they had to devise local means. “Let's use a tank. Let's use this.” If technology, the biometric rejects someone, they will say that, “Well, go use Coke or use something to wash your hands or do this and come back. You come back and it picks on.” Some of these local creative ways became very interesting to me, and I was able to link some of those instances to conversations, trying to weave theory and practice.

[00:21:41.640] – Isidore Dorpenyo

These are the things that we've been talking about, that users are not dummies, that users can make technology work. This is what Ghana is doing. This is an example of scholarship, or example of an occurrence or a case, that can help us really appreciate the conversation that users are not dummies and that localization and user-centered conversation should center more on users and not on the designers. Again, break that myth around designers are the only experts who know how technology should work or works, that users also know how to work.

[00:22:25.550] – Isidore Dorpenyo

With that election study or Ghana's case, I was able to contribute to conversations in the field of technical communication and to bring election studies to technical communication. The biometric is an example, but there are also other documents. US is not using the biometric yet, but it's using ballots. Classic example, Florida case, and then the hanging chads. That's technical communication in conversation.

[00:23:00.870] – Isidore Dorpenyo

We see these things. How do we make these processes better for us all? Because democracy is what we think can move societies ahead or make societies progress. If that is it, then how can we technical communicate? How can we also contribute to this?

[00:23:26.210] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Ghana's case is just a limited case to let other people know that the election process, the election terrain is a ripe terrain for technical communicators to practice the theory and to help solve problems. I will revert back to Quesenbery using UX and tech comm theories to make election process better.

[00:23:55.650] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Stacey Abrams used technical communication to make things better, revising election processes, revealing injustices and helping people to recognize injustices.

[00:24:14.950] – Janice Summers

I think that's one of the key things is revealing where there's some shortfalls, because you're always going to run into challenges and there's going to be shortfalls out there. But I think the whole practice of the technical communicators and the critique that they put on themselves is to reveal where there are some shortfalls, where there are social injustices so that we can correct that.

[00:24:37.290] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Especially the social injustice thing has really given us enough tools to do some of these advocacy work or to reveal injustices. Now, we've been emboldened to reveal. I think that we used to do that, but it wasn't so explicit. But now the social injustice thing, and the cultural thing, social injustice things are giving us that tools to explicitly discuss some of these injustices in electoral processes.

[00:25:16.900] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Technical communicators can just get in. We can train students who will go in there and revise and help revise and reshape some of these documents-

[00:25:28.860] – Janice Summers

Reshape and revise.

[00:25:30.420] – Isidore Dorpenyo

-to make things meaningful. Last year, I taught a document design class. One of the projects we did was revising how to run for elections in about four states, I think Colorado, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, these four states. It was a project that Whitney was working on. She linked us up to some of these states.

[00:26:04.060] – Isidore Dorpenyo

They had to redesign how to run elections and make information accessible for people who are not used to the legalese, right, and the technical jargons and language that's above them. How does the technical communicator come in, step in to solve or help people? So we designed for them.

[00:26:38.310] – Janice Summers

Did you get users involved in those things?

[00:26:40.970] – Isidore Dorpenyo

We got users involved, users from the various states involved to user test the documents for them, and they loved it. They loved it. The students loved it. Whitney really loved it and the various states loved it.

[00:26:58.050] – Isidore Dorpenyo

I don't know if they've implemented some of the changes yet, but it was fun engaging with them. It, in a way, exposed students to the fact that, “Oh, we can be designing documents for these people and helping them to make the electoral process meaningful and accessible to a lot of people.”

[00:27:21.350] – Isidore Dorpenyo

These are the various ways that we can empower our students to make changes in their small ways. It mustn't be a big change. It can come in small, small steps, baby steps.

[00:27:35.610] – Janice Summers

Small changes. Many small changes make big moves.

[00:27:40.500] – Isidore Dorpenyo

These are some of the things that we can do. I believe that if we encourage them to engage in election issues, they will be able to understand electoral processes and see how they fit in and how they can make some of these changes.

[00:28:00.740] – Janice Summers

You know, it's interesting because I think about technical communicators and the integrity and the ethics in technical communication, and then its emphasis on clarity of information, the facts, just representing information, and then allowing the person, the human on the other side to take in that information and make a decision and take an action based on having the right information.

[00:28:29.360] – Janice Summers

I think that when it comes to elections, that's the perfect place to be involved for a technical communicator because it's not weighing in one side or the other side. It's presenting information and it's keeping people informed. I don't want to say dispassionate way, but one that's not motivated by some other end objective. It's not driving to-

[00:28:54.330] – Liz Fraley

But it's also revealing that those hidden things, you called it antenarratives. It's revealing the things that somebody may… They're using coded language or they're saying things in a way to evoke an emotional response rather than just provide information, so an individual can make these decisions.

[00:29:22.790] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Antenarratives, I borrowed from Walton et al. They use antenarratives in a paper they worked on, so then countering the dominant narrative.

[00:29:39.330] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Technical communicators can reveal, so they're revealing to counter some of the dominant narrative, “Oh, yeah, America is a democratic state. It does this.” But when you go into details to analyze electoral documents, analyze the electoral process, to reveal some of these challenges, it helps the state to set up. If you want to be a model, then some of these things shouldn't happen.

[00:30:14.230] – Isidore Dorpenyo

I'm working on a paper now. I'm using Stacey Abrams a lot because I'm analyzing her website. I'm looking at how she uses technical communication tools to reveal lived experience where voters narrated their experiences, where they'll go to a polling station, and then they would tell you, “No, you're not supposed to vote here. Your name is in a different register. Go there. You go to the address.”

[00:30:45.740] – Isidore Dorpenyo

“No, that's not where you have to vote. You have to go to a different place.” Then people get frustrated, or some voters will say that, “Well, I went to the polling station to vote, and they told me that my name is not in the ballot.” Or some will say, “Well, I sent in my mail-in ballot, but I've just been told that I can't vote or I don't even know if my vote was counted.”

[00:31:11.090] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Revealing some of these things really do help. I think that technical communicators can reveal, even if we would make changes, we reveal, and then let the decision-makers take some actions to resolve practices that undermine or undercut the electoral process and make it unjust and unsafe.

[00:31:41.650] – Liz Fraley

Right. Because we're not authoring for the law. We're not authoring for a report or a journal article. We can reveal and rewrite it in a way that is speaking to whatever audience we're trying to reach.

[00:31:59.230] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Audience, very important.

[00:32:00.970] – Liz Fraley

Those constraints aren't there. We can actually use our skills to expand and make things more accessible.

[00:32:09.190] – Isidore Dorpenyo

That's why we are powerful and the tools we give our students make them powerful. We just haven't noticed it. Our students just noticed it. It takes us to push them beyond the organizational level to the public space. It takes us to let them know that, “Hey, we can engage in some of these practices.” There's the reason that there's a civic discourse.

[00:32:48.250] – Isidore Dorpenyo

There was a special issue in… Was it JBTC? There's also been special issues on public rhetoric and the public phase of technical communication. Some of these calls are pushing and redesigning and redefining technical communication that we shouldn't confine our students to just mere organizations. We should get them to know that they can participate in public conversations and make real changes outside the organization.

[00:33:22.140] – Isidore Dorpenyo

It's helping them to think about the documents they write and what effects those documents have on users, on readers, on policymakers, and let them know that they have the powerful tool. I think Robert Johnson uses that language, the powerful tool. We do that through writing.

[00:33:45.980] – Isidore Dorpenyo

If you say you're a technical writer, the first, “Oh, you must be a good writer. Well, okay, good. Let's use that to make a change.” How do we do that? What are the spaces that we can make those changes? I think that electoral space is one space that we can make.

[00:34:03.950] – Janice Summers

It's a huge space, and it's a really interesting space to break that barrier, technical writers just being involved in technology in the traditional sense. I think that this whole spirit around elections, really demonstrates how it goes beyond. It doesn't have a boundary. You can go into civic responsibilities and practice technical writing and actually help move things forward for people to make things more just.

[00:34:40.470] – Isidore Dorpenyo

It's also redefining technology, right, just looking at that hat, too, or the computer. But if you see a paper, you'd think that paper is not a technology. Paper is a technology.

[00:34:54.680] – Janice Summers

It is.

[00:34:55.380] – Isidore Dorpenyo

There are scholars who expand. Mitcham, for instance, defines technology as object, technology as knowledge, technology as artifacts. He has four different… I don't remember the last one. But if you look at technology from these four different aspects, then you will know that, “Hey, we're just not limiting to the computer or a car, but a paper is a technology.” Even writing is a technology. The pen used is a technology.

[00:35:32.040] – Isidore Dorpenyo

It's also called for redefining. There are scholars in the field who have called for redefining of technology. Johnson is one. I also call for redefining of technology. There are other people who do that work and just think about technology really well.

[00:35:57.490] – Isidore Dorpenyo

I like Johnson's definition of technology, where he traces it to classical notion of technique, the art of making. The art of making. Technique. The art of making. We make what we make. When we write, we are making something. The final deliverable, we've made it. It becomes a product.

[00:36:28.220] – Isidore Dorpenyo

It can be a product. It can be a process. It's not just limiting technology to those big things that we see, but reconfiguring and redefining technology to meet a lot of things. That's very important. It's very important.

[00:36:52.270] – Janice Summers

It's interesting because… Sorry, go ahead.

[00:36:53.620] – Liz Fraley

I was going to say, so then does technical communication become more about the human dimension?

[00:36:59.710] – Isidore Dorpenyo

The human dimension becomes a part of it. The human become a part of it. Some can even say the human is the technology. We have cyborgs and other things. The human becomes. So then we have to define technology in ways that humans become part of it. Humans can be when ideology or mentality are worked on or are structured in a way that we become automatons. Then that becomes important. It becomes important.

[00:37:41.690] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Humans, very important part of technology, and also looking at how we can bring the human part to technology design. That's why technical communication is a humanities field. It becomes very important, looking at the human part of technology and defining technology to include our humanness and that we have a part to play in all of that.

[00:38:16.880] – Isidore Dorpenyo

This is where the UX people come in. The human-computer interactions, folks come in, and variety of disciplines come in. I think Heidegger even defined technology as a mode of revealing. The human becomes a technology when it becomes a standing reserve. Heidegger uses standing reserve that you just turn and wait for someone to order you. That is also a part of it.

[00:39:02.350] – Janice Summers

Technical writing is a huge tent. It is a huge tent. When you start to think in terms of designing information for people, you're bringing in everybody because that's how it shapes that path, the human path that you were talking about earlier.

[00:39:22.630] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Yes. Some scholars say that one of our strengths is interdisciplinarity and bringing in different strengths. We bring the human part, too, where we say that your design should consider the needs, the purposes, context, and consent of human beings, of users.

[00:39:57.530] – Janice Summers

There's a specialness in technical communication. There's definitely a specialness, and it's in the ethos that drive technical communication. I think that's what makes it even more important that technical communication be involved in a lot more aspects that people wouldn't traditionally think. Like in elections, you wouldn't think. In website, you wouldn't necessarily think.

[00:40:20.500] – Janice Summers

You would think maybe marketing communication or impassioned rhetoric, but you wouldn't think technical communication. But I think it's more important that technical communication be involved because of that ethos that's underlying, that rigor that's applied in the field of technical communication.

[00:40:44.610] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Yes. That's one major… I think for me, the UX part and usability part of tech comm is doing really, really well with that. Advocating that technical writers are not just those mere writers who sit somewhere, wait for designers to design, and then they bring the technology to them or write instruction manuals. But we should be part of the design part.

[00:41:07.180] – Janice Summers

Right. You got to write down a procedure.

[00:41:07.250] – Isidore Dorpenyo

We should be part of the design process. That gap must be bridged. We bring in that human part. While designers keep designing, we will be telling them, “Hey, how do we bring in the needs of the users? How do we study?” We have tools and abilities and the skills to, one, study humans, analyze them, and bring those into the design process so the usability testing part, it becomes a very important part.

[00:41:44.260] – Isidore Dorpenyo

User-centered design, you do it, you test it, you come back; you do it, you test it, you come back. You don't design and then throw it at the users, no. But bringing them in, that's why we become advocates. That's how we become advocates for users, for people, and letting them know the real people use the tools that you design. If the tools do not meet their needs, they will not make use of your tools. That's the argument.

[00:42:19.380] – Isidore Dorpenyo

I think that hardcore technology designers, in a way, resist that, because they would say, “No, you don't have domain knowledge. You don't have domain knowledge. You can't be in this room.” But technical communicators needs to-

[00:42:37.650] – Liz Fraley

They think it stands for itself. It's obvious, right?

[00:42:42.700] – Isidore Dorpenyo


[00:42:43.890] – Liz Fraley

“I'm not building my own unique biases into this. No, it's pure algorithmic.”

[00:42:49.250] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Right. That's it. And again, even if technical communicators do not have that domain knowledge to design, unless you point out the biases, we are there to check-

[00:43:04.120] – Liz Fraley

To identify that. Reveal it.

[00:43:04.260] – Isidore Dorpenyo

The culture shapes the way this technology is being designed. Your ideology is being put into it. Angela Harris and other scholars who do race and technology issues, banks and other people, Walton Jones and Emma Rose and Agboka, and all these people emphasize that, “Hey, your culture, your ideology will shape the way you're designing the technology.”

[00:43:29.340] – Janice Summers

Right back to the biometric in the voting in Ghana.

[00:43:32.470] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Yes. They have this stereotype.

[00:43:45.580] – Janice Summers

They had no concept of some of the… Very hot climate, using machetes, fishmongers with very calloused hands. They had no concept of that, because they're in their own bubble designing something.

[00:43:50.530] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Yes. Ghana is not the only case. Solomon Islands, the same things happened. Hobbis and Hobbis studied their case. They also identified that those in agriculture really suffered. They were rejected several times. Those who had tattoos, those who had dyed their fingers, and other things were rejected. That bias, right? “Oh, this is the normal human body that we are designing the technology for. Anything outside the norm is an aberration. It must be rejected, and the vote must be rejected or not counted.” We are there to play that role, to check-

[00:44:30.780] – Janice Summers

To help eliminate or shine a light on the biases, because we all have them. Everybody has biases. You're a human being. That's a human nature. We're not perfect. We're all flawed. That's the beauty of having technical communicators in the room is because-

[00:44:53.870] – Liz Fraley


[00:44:54.020] – Janice Summers

-they don't point out these biases, to point a finger at you and say, “You're flawed.” They're just saying. “We might want to look at this.” It's like teaching new writers the beauty of having an editor edit their work. The same thing with designers need to have that ability to understand when a technical writer is critiquing or pointing out things. It's not to poke at their design and say they're flawed in their design, it's just to say, “We have to accommodate for this, so let's adjust for this.”

[00:45:27.280] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Yes, it's true. In a way, the scientists and these hardcore designers have been trained to believe that what they do is objective using the quantitative approach. It's objective. It's neutral. It's this, it's this. They manage to take out their cultural biases, but scholarship indicate that this is not true.

[00:45:52.800] – Janice Summers

Because if there's a human at the receiving end of whatever technology that they're doing, then, no.

[00:45:59.530] – Liz Fraley

There's always an assumption built somewhere.

[00:46:01.900] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Somewhere. We are there to reveal some of these things and help them to make their work better, not to antagonize, but make their work and their designs better for us all to use.

[00:46:15.660] – Janice Summers

To help smooth that path forward.

[00:46:19.930] – Isidore Dorpenyo

It's true.

[00:46:20.430] – Janice Summers

It has been such a delight talking to you. We've gone a little over, but it has been so nice talking with you, Isidore. I really, really enjoy it.

[00:46:31.120] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Thank you. Same here. Thank you very much for having me. You're doing wonderful work. I do hope that you continue doing this, spread the word and help bridge theory.

[00:46:46.590] – Janice Summers

You too.

[00:46:46.950] – Isidore Dorpenyo

I will spread the word.

[00:46:46.990] – Janice Summers

I love this whole the election and the civic thing into technical communication. And how timely, now more than ever, as people become more charged, now is the time to diffuse it. And I think that's the one thing that technical writer can lend into the whole situation is that diffusing. That unbiased diffusing, just the facts, that I think is really important now more than ever. I think anyone who's in politics should have a technical writer helping them. It really should.

[00:47:27.050] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Yes, they should. It will make their work better.

[00:47:31.110] – Janice Summers

But then I'm biased.

[00:47:36.090] – Isidore Dorpenyo

In a good way, though.

[00:47:38.490] – Janice Summers

I think so.

[00:47:41.490] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Yes, they should. They'll get to appreciate that technical writing is not just about writing manuals and not really just good writers, that technical writers have more to offer than just mere scribes.

[00:47:57.130] – Janice Summers

Writing is a part of it, but it's not-

[00:48:01.200] – Isidore Dorpenyo

It is a part. It's part. It's part of it. It's really a part of it.

[00:48:03.300] – Janice Summers

There's a lot of rigors that technical writers go through and the way they see things and how they implement. Anyways again, I hate to say our time is up. I really like talking with you. Always so interesting.

[00:48:18.910] – Isidore Dorpenyo

Thank you very much. Thank you.

[00:48:21.550] – Liz Fraley

Thank you so much.

[00:48:21.550] – Isidore Dorpenyo

I'm grateful that you invited me to have a conversation with you. It's great.

[00:48:26.580] – Janice Summers

Thank you very much.

[00:48:27.320] – Liz Fraley

We are grateful that you could spare some time for us. Amazing.

[00:48:33.300] – Janice Summers

Until the next time, take care.

[00:48:39.960] – Isidore Dorpenyo


[00:48:40.410] – Janice Summers


In this episode

Isidore K. Dorpenyo is an  Associate Professor of Professional Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He received BA in English at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana (2008) and the MS in Rhetoric and Technical Communication at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, MI (2013) and his PhD in Rhetoric, Theory, and Culture at Michigan Technological University (2016). His research focuses on election technology, international technical communication, social justice, user experience, public (civic) engagement, and localization. He is the author of the book: User-localization Strategies in the Face of Technological Breakdown. Isidore has co-guest edited two special issues: technical communication, election technology and civic engagement for Technical Communication and enacting social justice in technical communication for IEEE. He has published in Technical Communication Quarterly, Community Literacy Journal, the Journal of Business and Technical Communication, and the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication.

In this episode, we look at how electoral spaces serve as one avenue for TPC professionals to demonstrate discipline-in-practice. A conversation about the intersections among technical communication, election technology, and civic (public) engagement will reveal most of the issues that technical communicators are interested in, namely, social justice, public engagement, user experience, usability, document design, data, visualization, algorithms, localization, etc. This topic remains relevant because our electoral spaces have proven to be the breeding ground for social injustice. If you are in the US, think about the 2020 elections and its many issues; if you are in Ghana, think about the electoral space since 1992. A conversation like this helps to expand the scope of technical communication beyond organizations. Technical communicators in the field can expand the horizon.


Faculty page: 

His book: User Localization Strategies in the Face of Technological Breakdown: Biometric in Ghana’s Elections 

The book announcement: 

He edited the IEEE ProComm Special Issue on Social Justice in March 2022:

The Issue:

His article:

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