Scalable Localization and the Psychology of Usability and Design

Room 42 is where practitioners and academics meet to share knowledge about breaking research. In this episode, Kirk St.Amant explains how combining intercultural communication with cognitive psychology can identify usability expectations in different contexts.

Airdate: August 5, 2020

Season 1 Episode 3 | 50 min

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Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:13.420] – Liz Fraley 

Good morning, everyone, and welcome to Room42, I’m Liz Fraley from Single-Sourcing Solutions. I’ll be your moderator today. This is Janice Summers our interviewer, and welcome Kirk St.Amant, today’s guest in Room42. Kirk is a professor at the Eunice C. Willamson Endowed Chair for Technical Communication and the director of the newly formed Center for Health and Medical Communication at Louisiana Tech University. He’s here to help us start answering the question. How do concepts from psychology, usability, design, and intercultural communication help us identify usability expectations in different contexts?

[00:00:52.570] – Liz Fraley 

Welcome, Kirk.

[00:00:54.100] – Kirk St Amant

Thank you for having me Liz, thank you for having me Janice, looking forward to our discussion.

[00:00:58.240] – Janice Summers 

I am so excited to be talking to you. This is just like absolutely exciting and I have so many questions for you. 

[00:01:06.120] – Kirk St Amant

I’ll do my best. 

[00:01:07.220] – Janice Summers 

Well, I’m going to try to get through–you’ve got so much information that you can share that I’m going to try to keep us kind of focused and I hope you’ll come back again, because I don’t think we’re going to be able to get to everything, but we’re going to try our best.

[00:01:20.670] – Kirk St Amant

OK, sounds like a plan. 

[00:01:23.300] – Janice Summers 

Scalable Useability, what is that? How did you come up with that phrase? 

[00:01:28.720] – Kirk St Amant


[00:01:29.330] – Janice Summers 

What inspired you for that?

[00:01:32.190] – Kirk St Amant

It was actually looking at localization and customization if you will. 

[00:01:36.220] – Janice Summers 


[00:01:36.310] – Kirk St Amant

And so, for example, with–I do a lot of work with engineers, particularly biomedical engineers right now. 

[00:01:42.500] – Janice Summers 


[00:01:42.530] – Kirk St Amant

And it’s looking at whenever you design a technology for someone, for example, their default on how to use things is based on their personal experiences. 

[00:01:51.350] – Janice Summers 


[00:01:51.630] – Kirk St Amant

And so the more you can customize something to meet the previous experiences and expectations of the specific individual, the more readily they can use it because their expectations have been met, they can look at it reflexively, they know what it is, they know what it does and they know how to use it. And I’m just thinking in terms of that, we are also talking about international communication at the same time and localization, and the notion of well with localization the idea is, you don’t treat an entire cultural group like a gigantic monolith, but you try to figure out that specific group. What are their experiences that have shaped their expectations for how to recognize things, how to use things, and how to operate them. And at that point, it kind of struck me well, we’re talking about the same thing, whether it’s ultimate individualized customization or localization. We’re basically dealing with the continuum of how closely we try to meet the specific expectations of someone based on their experiences, because those shape, the mental models or the cognitive processes, they use to interact with devices or life around them. And so that’s where the idea came from, is this notion of if you start with the individual total individualized customization as the beginning point, how far out can you scope or scale back and what range of the experiences do you take into account to try to meet the expectations of needs of individuals as shaped by their experiences?

[00:03:19.980] – Janice Summers 

OK, so taking it from the perspective of the end-user rather than the engineers’ own personal biases. 

[00:03:27.790] – Kirk St Amant


[00:03:28.910] – Janice Summers 

Now, how would they gain that knowledge of the end-users? 

[00:03:35.280] – Kirk St Amant

Great question.

[00:03:36.150] – Janice Summers 

 Engineers don’t often interface with a lot of people.

[00:03:39.150] – Kirk St Amant


[00:03:40.080] – Janice Summers 


[00:03:40.160] – Kirk St Amant

And I suppose that’s from folks like myself and some other colleagues in cognitive psychology from my university and other areas I’ve come in. And there’s the recognition that you’ve got to understand the human element, what the human user expects and needs before you build something for them. So like the classic line, if you build it, they will come from Field of Dreams. 

[00:04:03.380] – Janice Summers 


[00:04:03.670] – Kirk St Amant

This notion of if you build it, they will use it. No, the idea–we’ll need to know, No, what do they need? What do they expect and that determines whether they use. And so it’s a matter of getting folks to actually sit down with the people you’re designing something for and figure out what do they expect, what do you expect a blood pressure gauge to look like versus have me design it for you and hope that you know what it is. When you know what it looks like well, how do you expect to use it based upon your experiences rather than me kind of put some switches on it and hope you can intuit your way through it. Your experiences might have taught you what to look for in that design. And so it’s essentially building from the user back to the engineer. Here is what the user looks for when they pick a device up. This is what they need to know to recognize it, this is what they look for, to operate it, and most importantly, the context they’re in dictates what they will do with it. So here’s where they tend to be when they use it, which governs what they look for and how they operate something. Classic example, you and I might both check our blood pressure using a wrist gauge in our kitchens.

[00:05:16.580] – Kirk St Amant

But you’re checking your blood pressure at the very start of the day when you’re the only person awake and have all the time in the world. So the degree of attention you can pay to find detail of designs of devices is quite high. I might be doing the same thing in my kitchen at the end of the day after picking up my kids from school and preparing dinner for them. In that context, my attention is in a dozen different places. And so when I come to operate that same device, the context where I’m using it needs to be addressed to make sure I don’t make a mistake because my attention is being shifted continually while I use it. So it’s looking at those dynamics, if you will.

[00:05:53.380] – Janice Summers 

OK, so now, Intercultural communication. Now, can you just define that for me? How would you define it? 

[00:06:02.900] – Kirk St Amant

Sure. I’m going to start with the abstract textbooky kind of thing and then talk about the more pragmatic. 

[00:06:08.840] – Janice Summers 


[00:06:09.280] – Kirk St Amant

So quite often you hear Culture defined as a worldview, and a worldview, basically, is this group of individuals determines what is important to them and their group, which is essential for them to pay attention to and value or pay attention to and avoid because it’s related to their survival. So that’s kind of the fundamental thing when we talk about a culture at a very brass tacks level if you will. From a more pragmatic, let’s say, cognitive psychological perspective, it goes to attention on what you pay attention to. So, it kind of works something like this. Our brains cannot effectively process all the information our senses bring in at one time. Which is there’s too much data coming in that the brain can process. 

[00:06:51.660] – Janice Summers 


[00:06:52.480] – Kirk St Amant

And we’ve all experienced sensory overload. There’s too much going on, I don’t know what to do, I’ve got to shut down to avoid living in a state of that, our culture teaches us, what are the sensory impulses to pay attention to. 

[00:07:05.620] – Janice Summers 


[00:07:05.660] – Kirk St Amant

And that’s key because it tells us what to separate out from the environment around us and focus on–

[00:07:10.880] – Janice Summers 

— what’s important. Yeah.

[00:07:12.100] – Kirk St Amant

Yes, ma’am. It’s called perceptual segregation in cognitive psychology. But built into that perceptual segregation is this concept of scope and scale. For example, if I do this and you say, well, what do I look at? Do I look at the shirt? Do I look at the buttons? Do I look at the color? the weave, I say, look at the hand, just focus on the hand. And suddenly everything else goes away. And then you might ask, what do I focus on the individual digits? Do I focus on the creases, the veins, the fingernails, and then cultural signal, just look at the hand. All that matters is the hand. At some point, the fingernails may become relevant and we’ll tell you to focus on them. But for now, just focus on the hand. OK, now that I asked you to focus, what does it do? Well, we use it to reach out to greet someone or we use it to reach around to hold something. But the idea is what culture essentially does in this worldview format is tells you of all the sensory data you’re taking in. Here’s what to pay attention to and once your attention is focused, here’s what it is, here’s what it does, and here’s how you use it in this specific set of context that occur in our culture or if you will, we’re going to call that Recognition, Categorization, and Operationalization. I can identify it, I know what it can do and I know in a specific setting I’m in right now which of those potential uses to apply to make it work or to use it.

[00:08:39.480] – Janice Summers 

And those things are, how different are they for cultures? Is there a lot of commonality? boundaries. I mean, the whole concept of boundaries–

[00:08:50.520] – Kirk St Amant


[00:08:51.360] – Janice Summers 

It has shifted, hasn’t it.

[00:08:52.530] – Kirk St Amant

Right. I mean, a lot of these factors are based upon exposure over time. I mean, we’re taught either actively someone tells us, pay attention to this or passively. We see other members of our group paying attention to something and learn it to get some sort of merit, whether it’s, you know, valued or not. And the more physical separation that occurred historically, the easier it was for two different groups to diverge and remain in divergence around what they pay attention to.

[00:09:18.900] – Janice Summers 


[00:09:19.740] – Kirk St Amant

 Now all of that changes the moment you’re exposed to something else. And so with modern telecommunications, particularly the Internet, the more we can interact with other individuals, the more we can see what individuals from different regions, nations and cultures, what they’re doing

[00:09:35.310] – Janice Summers 


[00:09:35.790] – Kirk St Amant

How they design, the more we can expand our understanding to incorporate those factors.

[00:09:41.370] – Janice Summers 


[00:09:42.240] – Kirk St Amant

And so, you know, culture isn’t a fixed entity. It’s always in a state of flux, depending upon who you’re interacting with, what the nature of the interaction is, when it is happening? All those things cause that flux to progress over time.

[00:09:55.890] – Janice Summers 

Right, how do you compensate for that in design?

[00:10:00.780] – Kirk St Amant

In design again, it’s we go back to the individual user, OK, and it comes down to who are you, where are you and what are you trying to do?

[00:10:08.190] – Janice Summers 


[00:10:08.950] – Kirk St Amant

And I mean, those are key. You might have the knowledge to operate a specific technology, but the context you’re in does not have, let’s say, a readily available power source that allows the technology that we want to give you to be powered. In that case, we need something else. Or you might be in an environment that permits you to use this technology, but you don’t have the knowledge because the educational system you were in did not provide you with that knowledge. So it’s a matter of going back to who are we designing this for, regardless of the culture that they are in, who are they? Where are they located? and what are they trying to do? And working with members of that group asking them these questions. What are you trying to do, what do you usually use to do this, what does this process usually entail? But if you’re using something else, what is it and how do you use it? What factors in the environment where you are, affect how you do something? It’s getting that level of detail to figure out literally how people are engaging in this perceptual segregation, what they look for and look at to identify things, use them, and figure out what to do in a context.

[00:11:20.620] – Janice Summers 

Now, how are you assessing all of this? Are you doing in-depth interviews? 

[00:11:24.990] – Kirk St Amant

Great question.

[00:11:25.010] – Janice Summers 

Or are you using online tools for this? How are you capturing all of that information straight from an end-user?

[00:11:33.120] – Kirk St Amant

It’s a multipart process. So, I mean, you begin with both interviews and focus groups. And the idea is with the interview, you get that individual in-depth one on one information from the person. But we’re all fallible, we’ll forget things. So balance it with focus groups so that when the group begins to respond as a group, they tend to fit in parts–put in parts and pieces that might have been omitted.

[00:11:56.380] – Janice Summers 


[00:11:56.470] – Kirk St Amant

And so you take that initial data from individuals and focus groups and use it to come up with a prototype design. 

[00:12:03.280] – Janice Summers 


[00:12:04.060] – Kirk St Amant

And I should point out during these things, since we’re talking about the design of something, it’s always important to either sketch out or create some sort of representation as folks are talking and have them clarified. So when you say, for example, it’s a remote control, begin the drawing it out, something that looks like this or something slightly differently. But the idea is you aggregate this data and look for trends in it across people and across this group, these seem to be the features this technology needs to have, for people to know what it is, identification. More importantly, these features need to be configured in this way or put in these places on the interface so they know what it does on categorization. And then we also need to be asking them where are you using this thing so we can make sure they can find it in a pinch if needed. How many of us reflexively use a remote control by touch because we know where it is and how to find it. That operationalization, and so based upon that, you come up with a wireframe or an initial prototype design that you then go back to members of this audience and you test with and brute force questions. Do you recognize what this is? Tell me what it does, how would you use it? OK, talk me through the process you would engage in to use it. If it’s a functioning prototype, I’d like you to use this design to perform this task. I’d like you to use this prototype remote control to turn on the TV set, and key to this approach talk a lot or think a lot protocols. I want to observe what you’re doing, but please tell me what you are doing, why and what your initial reactions are, as you’re going through a process and you collect that data from these initial tests. And again, we’re talking both with individuals and focus groups, time and resources permitting, you revise that design and ideally test again. Now, I’m presenting an idealized situation.

[00:13:59.110] – Janice Summers 


[00:13:59.860] – Kirk St Amant

There are no parameters. And so for the practitioner, the question becomes how much time and how much money do we have to dedicate to this? We know that at a minimum, we must gain data or initial input from the population we’re designing for.  

[00:14:15.790] – Janice Summers 


[00:14:15.880] – Kirk St Amant

And we know we’ve got to do at least one round of testing because me guessing at what you want, is always a dangerous thing. And so based upon those parameters, what is a reasonable number of interviews or focus groups, what is a reasonable level of time and money to put into developing a prototype to test what kind of testing do we wish to engage in? All of that is governed by those real-world factors of time and resources or time and money if you will.

[00:14:44.780] – Janice Summers 

So the more testing that you do, is there a greater success? 

[00:14:50.630] – Kirk St Amant

Theoretically, yes, I mean, you want to get to the perfect point where there’s no–people look at it reflexively, they can do and use. 

[00:14:58.550] – Janice Summers 


[00:14:58.920] – Kirk St Amant

That’s very difficult. And so you’ve also, thank you for mentioning it in this process, got to create a threshold. What is the level at which we’ll find it’s acceptable now? Most people can perform most of the functions that are essential. And functions that either cannot be performed or performed problematically are not so detrimental that they’ll cause some sort of problem that can’t be undone.

[00:15:19.800] – Janice Summers 


[00:15:21.010] – Kirk St Amant

So, again, this is, the beginning of the processes is setting these parameters. 

[00:15:25.450] – Janice Summers 


[00:15:26.090] – Kirk St Amant

And then once you’ve set the parameters, figuring out how to select test subjects, how to engage in this kind of data collection, how to do this kind of initial user testing, how to do the revision process. 

[00:15:38.340] – Janice Summers 

Right, now can you start with, like, work that’s already been done and then build from that? 

[00:15:46.340] – Kirk St Amant


[00:15:46.840] – Janice Summers 

Is there like a way that you could borrow somebody else’s research on a related type of thing and apply it?

[00:15:52.690] – Kirk St Amant

Sure. I mean, one of the interesting things is most of us are accustomed to using a range of things. And so whenever we create something, “New” we’re not building something that’s never existed before for the most part, we’re creating a one-off of something or a modification of something that already exists, and so in that case, it’s a matter of if we take stuff that people can already recognize. 

[00:16:15.980] – Janice Summers 


[00:16:16.360] – Kirk St Amant

What are some modifications we can make to it and then try it with the sample of the test audience to see if they can understand it. We all know how apps on the phone work on an iPhone work and smartphone work. And so it’s a matter of we don’t need to get into designing a smartphone. So based upon that, what should our app look like so people can recognize it on a phone? 

[00:16:37.540] – Janice Summers 


[00:16:37.860] – Kirk St Amant

How does our app need to respond? So when they tap it once or twice like they would a conventional app, we know it’s responding accordingly so we can use existing products that mirror what we’re trying to do, and to a fair level of safety I guess, guess that there’s going to be some parallelism there. Let’s call this analogous design. We design something based on a pre-existing thing that folks already know how to use. 

[00:17:04.930] – Janice Summers 


[00:17:05.110] – Kirk St Amant

Because they’ve got it built into their mental hardware a method for using it. So it’s just a matter of righting that existing reflexive behavior to an objective.

[00:17:14.830] – Janice Summers 

Right, to use a calculator, you can use your phone.

[00:17:18.180] – Kirk St Amant


[00:17:19.360] – Janice Summers 

The keyboard is the same, the same if you have the math part on your keyboard, right, the same thing. So you’re just gonna vary it a little bit and you can safely assume and just test from that aspect you can build from what’s already been done. 

[00:17:38.980] – Kirk St Amant

Yes, ma’am. 

[00:17:40.050] – Janice Summers 

What if you have no exposure to your end-users? like there are situations where people just don’t have exposure to end-users. So what could somebody in that situation do?

[00:17:51.430] – Kirk St Amant

Well, let’s take this leg as a two-part approach. 

[00:17:54.530] – Janice Summers 


[00:17:54.600] – Kirk St Amant

So but no exposure. It’s one thing to say there’s no ability to physically interact with somebody. 

[00:18:00.200] – Janice Summers 

Right, but they can’t interview their customer, they have no connection with customers. 

[00:18:06.040] – Kirk St Amant


[00:18:06.310] – Janice Summers 

 Yeah like they’re not allowed. There’s gatekeepers. 

[00:18:08.730] – Kirk St Amant

Right. So, I mean, in that case, the question becomes, if it’s an organizational perspective, how does the organization create an initiative that the gatekeepers who were involved realize it’s in their benefit to participate in this process and to provide some degree of access to this population? Now, at some point, the organization will have to make a decision. If the gatekeeper is a third party, do we want to let that third party do this kind of research for us, or do we want the third parties permission, ability, whatever you want to call it, to interact with this population directly, and so those are things to sort of negotiate there within. So that’s kind of one way of doing it. The second way is, there are certain bands of–for consumer sake certain bands of consumer different categorizations folks fall into. And you could sort of get into it by saying we just need consumers from this particular bandwidth or this particular background. So maybe we’ll do something as simple as on our website, put out a call for these many individuals. Or through our social media platforms, put out a call for this many individuals for research. But it’s simply a matter of without having access to the people you’re designing for, the ability to guess at their expectations, is kind of difficult at a minimum and could be dangerous in some cases, if, particularly if it’s instances of life and death. 

[00:19:34.640] – Liz Fraley 

Can’t mess around in those situations, it’s hard to run a prototype if you’re testing like ambulance technology for sure.

[00:19:42.150] – Kirk St Amant


[00:19:43.200] – Liz Fraley 


[00:19:45.820] – Janice Summers 

Right, right, yeah. So how do you measure usability and cost consumer customer expectations?

[00:19:54.780] – Kirk St Amant

You can do it a couple of different ways and from like a very beta stage, you can do things like pre and post-testing to show just brute force customer satisfaction before the creation of our product, these were the completion rates and completion times for this task, either using a pre-existing product or with no product to fill the gap at all. Using our revised product or this new product, there is a decrease in completion time and an increase in success rate. So that could be one marker and that’s something you can measure more directly. But then there are things like follow up interviews that check satisfaction level and adoption rate. So satisfaction level, Did you enjoy this process? Would you use this technology again? Adoption metrics, would you recommend this technology to a friend, family member, co-worker, client? But measuring those two kinds of data to figure out the usability will guide the marketability of it in many cases. So since word of mouth and social media marketing are so important now, effective usability that encourages individuals to want to share information about something with someone can be very valuable. So from my perspective, it’s not thinking about usability as this extra thing, but it is an integrated part of the process that affects the design, the development, the marketing, all of it, because it’s all interconnected.

[00:21:19.230] – Janice Summers 

Right. Were there any things that you intuited and were completely surprised at the end results when you measured usability at the back-end?

[00:21:28.450] – Kirk St Amant

Yes, I’m going to sound like a geek for a second. 

[00:21:33.450] – Janice Summers 

That’s OK. 

[00:21:33.870] – Kirk St Amant

So we all taking information through different senses. 

[00:21:37.820] – Janice Summers 


[00:21:38.060] – Kirk St Amant

And some of us have a primacy sense, for those of us who are sighted, our sense of vision is our primary sense of doing things. 

[00:21:45.840] – Janice Summers 


[00:21:46.510] – Kirk St Amant

Because of that, we tend to forget that whenever we process information, we take it into all channels at the same time. 

[00:21:52.070] – Janice Summers 


[00:21:52.620] – Kirk St Amant

And so working with users– 

[00:21:54.760] – Janice Summers 

The difference between being on the phone or being face-to-face. 

[00:21:57.560] – Kirk St Amant


[00:21:58.200] – Janice Summers 

A good example. Yeah.

[00:21:59.820] – Kirk St Amant

But you don’t realize how important nonvisual factors are to usability until someone brings them to your attention.

[00:22:06.900] – Kirk St Amant

So I’ve talked a lot about we draw this, we sketch this, we sketch this. At some point, someone’s going to ask, well, what does it feel like to hold in your hand? And we found this out in terms of when you interact with individuals who are visually impaired.

[00:22:19.080] – Janice Summers 


[00:22:20.510] – Janice Summers 

They might not, they’ve got a different primary sense that they will use to recognize something. It’s not what it looks like. It might be what it feels like or what it sounds like. Well, it turns out we all recognize many of those same cues. We just have relegated them further back in our cognitive processes because we don’t realize they’re as important as they are. So it’s realizing not only is it important for me to create an effective, let’s say, pen that I recognized when I see it, but when I pick it up and feel it, it feels it’s got the right proportions, have substance to it, that it’s a good pen and it sounds right. So when I use it, I know it’s operating correctly. So the big surprise there was usability is multichannel and it’s whenever you do collect this kind of data, it involves more than simply asking what does it look like? But it’s what does it feel like? What does it sound like? Whenever you–

[00:23:13.210] – Janice Summers 

All the sensors into consideration.

[00:23:15.210] – Kirk St Amant

Yes, ma’am. 

[00:23:15.720] – Janice Summers 

And the usability. Yes. 

[00:23:17.680] – Kirk St Amant

When you test, not just well, do you recognize this? What facets let you recognize it? Does it hold this? Manipulate it? Does it feel correct, those kinds of things. 

[00:23:32.970] – Liz Fraley 

Just last week, we had Lisa Melonçon and she talked about her brother-in-law with an iPad in the field and no sink to clean his fingers so that he could operate the iPad.

[00:23:46.060] – Kirk St Amant


[00:23:48.360] – Janice Summers 

And on top of that, he’s on a tractor trying to–

[00:23:51.890] – Liz Fraley 

Trying to fix something.

[00:23:53.470] – Kirk St Amant

But we’re back to context. You know, it’s one thing to know your user, but you got to know where they’re using something. 

[00:24:00.240] – Janice Summers 


[00:24:01.180] – Kirk St Amant

You know, that becomes key. There’s a joke about, like the manuals that are used to do everything from open-heart surgery to, say, diffuse a landmine. 

[00:24:10.190] – Janice Summers 


[00:24:10.400] – Kirk St Amant

And it’s always the point at where the individuals get both hands on something. And if they let go, the chaos will happen. Then you see turn page, you know, and so it’s always about well, know, where are people using this thing? And I think that’s one thing that when folks begin to think about scaling for usability, it’s you scale for the context where something is used as well as the individual who’s using it. 

[00:24:35.010] – Janice Summers 

So in compensating for that context that’s where you can have huge variations, right?

[00:24:41.620] – Kirk St Amant


[00:24:42.410] – Janice Summers 

Right, you talked about earlier, the person like if I’m taking my blood pressure in the morning and I’m relaxed, nobody’s up and I’m doing it before I’m having coffee. 

[00:24:51.550] – Kirk St Amant


[00:24:52.300] – Janice Summers 

Right, and I have plenty of time. Whereas if, you know, the kids are up and I’m making dinner and everything is chaos and hectic, I have very little bandwidth. As if I only got so many bites per second that I’m going to process, and I don’t have a lot of time devoted to interfacing with this equipment. 

[00:25:07.910] – Kirk St Amant


[00:25:08.470] – Janice Summers 

So the context, but that’s a huge swing. In context, how do you figure out where to target? Because you can’t hit everybody. You can’t aim for everyone.

[00:25:21.520] – Kirk St Amant

Great question. And I mean, this is where it comes down to–it’s got to be user testing in context. So, for example, when we collect data, because that’s, one of the questions to always ask is where is this used and when? Because the when, the time dynamic will affect what is going on in that space, like we mentioned before breakfast or in the middle of making a meal. So when and where, and then it’s identifying when we do initial interviews on focus groups asking these questions, where would you use this technology? When would you use it? What is going on in that space? Who is there? What is happening while you’re using this process? Excuse me, but then it involves user testing it ideally in that location. So back to you mentioned the iPad in the field. It’s not a matter of you bringing in farmers to a controlled location like a laboratory setting, give them an iPad and do it. No, no, no, no. You go out to the field, and ask the person on the tractor to please stop. Can you try to do this right now? And now that does get tricky and that’s where you need to think about, we’re back to time and resources. How do we do this? Do we mail them the iPad and ask them, like on their own to use it and return it? Do we find it that they’ve already got an iPad, put the app on it and ask them to include it in their daily routine.

[00:26:39.790] – Janice Summers 


[00:26:40.090] – Kirk St Amant

But if you’re not testing in context, you’re not going to get the full range of different–what’s often called affordances or constraints, that affect how people use things. And that’s what’s going to be key.

[00:26:52.420] – Janice Summers 

Right. Now, what about–well, are there times you have to fill in the blank and make your best guess? Your best educated guess.

[00:27:02.320] – Kirk St Amant


[00:27:03.050] – Janice Summers 

Assuming like we all have a pre-concept of a farmer’s life, right, we’ve pretty much seen or heard movies, right at this point in our lives. So everyone has kind of a general sense of what the life of a farmer is on a tractor. So we have this idea of it. Is it OK sometimes to fill in the blank with, like, writing a future film and imagining this character and all this character is going through, to help fill in some of these blanks? Because in a practitioner’s world, I can see where a lot of that analysis time is not given to them it just isn’t and it won’t change.

[00:27:47.320] – Kirk St Amant


[00:27:47.770] – Janice Summers 

So for a practitioner, what do you recommend they could do to try and solve that? Because it’s an important factor. It really is in design.

[00:27:59.770] – Kirk St Amant

So you’ve raised some excellent points and excellent questions, I’ll do my best to try to talk about each of them. 

[00:28:06.130] – Janice Summers 


[00:28:07.300] – Kirk St Amant

So in terms of the pragmatics, when can you sort of bridge the gap or when can you like, let your own sort of movie that you’ve created to do stuff? Well, it comes down to what is your objective and what is the users objective? So, I mean, you mentioned movies, so let’s start there. A Movies designed to entertain, so its ability to reflect reality, you can take in artistic parameters with it. Me creating an app that’s designed to help people share their videos of themselves lip-synching songs on an online platform. Well, I can roughly kind of guess at what that is, because any sort of adverse effect that might come out of it in theory should be mitigated or at least the level of damage or danger that could occur. Now we can talk about what does that mean in terms of requiring age checks of individuals before they post things? That’s a different element. But so, in theory, the level of danger is limited. Now, let’s take something like a drug dispensing device that individuals are supposed to operate on their own. You’re talking about something where if the individual doesn’t use it effectively, there will be severe harm, if not death, that results from it. In those cases, you really cannot take the risk.

[00:29:17.130] – Janice Summers 


[00:29:17.550] – Kirk St Amant

That I guess, is something. So, again, we’re back to that scalability. When you are scoping this process, what is the scope that you are dealing with? Is it entertainment? Is it some sort of professional function that’s associated with production, with sales, with legal compliance? Is it designed to monitor a health condition? Is it designed to save a life? That’s kind of we’re back to that context. What is the context this is going to be used in? 

[00:29:44.430] – Janice Summers 


[00:29:44.510] – Kirk St Amant

And so that becomes important. To your question of so, how do you research this? We’re at a stage now where the complexity of these kinds of issues is not something personally I think one individual, one organization or small group can do. This is literally talking about a community involvement project. And so it’s a matter of, well, if I’m an educator and you work in industry, what are some things we could collaborate on? So I could use students working in say, one of my classes to conduct some of this research as they learn about it. That could be of benefit to you and your organization for which maybe the students could get, say, internship credit.

[00:30:22.650] – Janice Summers 


[00:30:23.570] – Liz Fraley 


[00:30:23.570] – Kirk St Amant

How could you partner with professional organizations in the field to say, would you consider having members work on this project? And here might be something that we can provide in exchange, maybe access to some of our professional development materials. But we’re at a point now where we need to start thinking about effective collaborations to engage in this kind of work, because I think it’s two things. It’s very difficult to do independently. But second, we need to be sharing this information for the most part. 

[00:30:52.110] – Liz Fraley 


[00:30:52.440] – Kirk St Amant

And if it’s not a proprietary thing and it’s not something that involves the disclosure of some sort of specific trade secret or benefit, if it’s just about human behavior with certain things, to what levels can we share this information? Because it does all of us good.

[00:31:07.950] – Janice Summers 

Right, right. Exactly. And you brought up a really good point, which I always like to encourage practitioners to get involved with professors at universities and engage students and things like you might not have the budget, you might not have– often you don’t have the bandwidth. I mean, let’s face it, in the commercial world, there’s not a whole lot of bandwidth for research, whereas in academia there is, and there happens to be a lot of hungry students that are eager to learn and more than happy to engage in doing work that helps them strengthen their skills.

[00:31:43.080] – Liz Fraley 

Real projects, not just fake things that don’t mean anything.

[00:31:47.230] – Liz Fraley 


[00:31:48.140] – Janice Summers 

 Yeah. And it’s interesting because the more professors we talk to we’re hearing this common things like, hey, we would be more than happy to entertain projects that the commercial industry needs help on. We are happy to do that, right, I’ve got plenty of students to throw at projects. 

[00:32:03.110] – Kirk St Amant


[00:32:03.860] – Janice Summers 

So I just want to reinforce that probably if you might have missed that who is a practitioner.

[00:32:09.330] – Liz Fraley 

 For sure.

[00:32:10.260] – Kirk St Amant

Can I put one thing out there while we’re talking about this?

[00:32:12.180] – Janice Summers 

Yeah, sure.

[00:32:13.140] – Kirk St Amant

 So one of the odd fringe benefits of the current social situation all of us who have lived on the line for a very long time, is the need to be in physical proximity with someone to engage in these interactions. We’ve begun to realize we can do a lot more virtually than we realized. And so when it comes to forging these partnerships, now’s a very opportune time to reach out across the country, if need be, and find someone who can help in a class in different places who can help, because a lot of the stuff we’re talking about can be done online. 

[00:32:43.840] – Janice Summers 


[00:32:44.430] – Kirk St Amant

I mean, I don’t necessarily have to go to every farm field if I can get a decent zoom connection out to that farm field, to text the farmer who is out there operating something.

[00:32:52.830] – Janice Summers 


[00:32:53.610] – Kirk St Amant

How do we leverage this new comfort or familiarity with online exchanges to kind of maximize this ability to interact and collect this kind of data to experience things?

[00:33:03.900] – Janice Summers 


[00:33:04.630] – Liz Fraley 


[00:33:04.980] – Janice Summers 

Not just across the country, but around the world. 

[00:33:06.700] – Kirk St Amant

Yes ma’am. 

[00:33:07.300] – Janice Summers 

Right, and–

[00:33:09.510] – Liz Fraley 

–all those contexts.

[00:33:11.650] – Janice Summers 

It’s a globally connected world because we’re in this global situation where it’s become quite obvious, the benefits of being globally connected. And I think this is a rare opportunity to capitalize on this opportunity to connect with people all around the world in new and different ways and keep that connection going. OK.

[00:33:36.690] – Kirk St Amant

Can we go back to one other thing real quick before I forget it? 

[00:33:40.010] – Liz Fraley 


[00:33:40.700] – Janice Summers 

Yes, please.

[00:33:40.760] – Kirk St Amant

You’re mentioning about at what point can you sort of guess at things? 

[00:33:43.820] – Janice Summers 


[00:33:44.510] – Kirk St Amant

And so here’s something we’ve seen very close to literally home here in Louisiana, proper nutrition for individuals. Now we have a pretty solid idea of what proper nutrition entails. And we know that there are certain kinds of foods that people should or should not eat and the things that they should or should not cook and how to cook and prepare these things and those sorts of things. So it’s very easy, let’s say, to come up with a recipe guide for individuals on certain levels of budgets to try to purchase the kind of food and cook the kind of food that’s needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle, let’s say.

[00:34:20.690] – Janice Summers 


[00:34:20.860] – Kirk St Amant

For your heart health. Great. What we’ve noticed here, and again, that’s kind of, this is stuff that should be fairly self-obvious, one would think and as long as you provide people with reasonable expectations based upon when our people operate, it should work. Well, one of the things we’ve discovered here is it does–those recipes don’t necessarily work because of something called food deserts. And that is–a lot of that is predicated on the fact you have access to a grocery store.

[00:34:48.050] – Janice Summers 


[00:34:49.490] – Kirk St Amant

What happens if you’re in the small rural community where the only food source you can walk to because you might be elderly or there might be some other reason you cannot use a car or there’s no public transportation. You have to walk to the dollar store, which is the only source of food in that region. That’s a whole different kind of nutritional content available to you. What if you’re in an urban area and the only source of food that you can actually get to pragmatically is a gas station? I’m not being glib with this.

[00:35:21.240] – Kirk St Amant

These are actual–

[00:35:22.010] – Liz Fraley 

 No, no–

[00:35:22.700] – Janice Summers 

No, it’s real.

[00:35:23.690] – Liz Fraley 


[00:35:24.130] – Kirk St Amant

But it’s realizing that these menus that seem so self-obvious because they’re based upon things we’ve understood for a very long time. It’s advocated by the right groups. The moment you put them into a certain context, they are not usable, not because the information behind necessarily is flawed and not necessarily because the users for whom they’re designed can’t understand or will push back against it. It’s simply the physical realities of where people are using things do not align with the content. And so we’re back to this, it’s fine to kind of try to speculate at certain things, but again, what are you talking about and what does it mean? Because in many ways, you mentioned what discoveries you made. This is one of those discoveries. What you don’t realize, while context really binds the usability of something, simply by what is actually available. And so, those kinds of recognitions are always important to make sure by beginning with asking the user, well, what’s the context you’re in? That was my digression.

[00:36:29.860] – Janice Summers 

And whats the context they’re certainly using? And food is like a hole. There’s so much information of food that goes this way and that way. OK, so, I’m trying to pick up. 

[00:36:48.820] – Liz Fraley 

Yeah, we got a lot of questions and–

[00:36:52.050] – Janice Summers 

There are a lot and I’m trying to get through to a lot of them and a lot of what I want to talk to you about as well, but, yeah, oh, let’s go down to this one, so technical writer’s specifically, so we’re talking about users and engineers. From a technical writer’s perspective by now, we have to now take this complex thing and we have to communicate this complexity in a simple way. So we usually do not have a lot of exposure. And oftentimes, sadly, it’s not often–like we don’t often have a seat at the design table. 

[00:37:36.090] – Kirk St Amant


[00:37:36.390] – Janice Summers 

Now, we’re left with the situation, we have to just explain this complexity and we’re seeing usability issues as we’re writing. How do we address that? And what can a technical writer do to infuse this whole concept of scalable usability in our writing practice? How do we get that going from–It’s almost like the bottom up, for lack of a better phrase.

[00:38:01.950] – Kirk St Amant

Sure. So there are a couple of different things to do. And the first is earlier I talked about this concept of pre-testing and post-testing. So in many cases, forcing your way to the table is showing you add value. And so the question becomes, well, how do technical writers add value? Let’s have these individuals try to operate this device in one of three ways. Let’s have them operate this thing that you’ve created with no instruction and let’s see what happens again, let’s measure completion rates to completion times, satisfaction levels and adoption rates. Now, let’s take, I’ve tried to create instruction on how to use the thing. Let’s have them use it again and try this again. Different individuals, but same target audience. Now, let’s try the third way. Let me, based upon how I understand audience to work, let me propose a design. And using this proposed design, let’s try it again and let’s measure those variables. Now, this is just kind of an idealized situation, but theoretically, you could show relatively quickly that there is an increase in usability and more importantly, an increase in satisfaction and adoption rates for certain things. If we can argue that that’s market share, because we know at this point in time that markets roll very quickly. Competition is high and the ease of use can be the key to cracking it. So can technical writers use this kind of an exercise to demonstrate to individuals in their organizations? They know actually we contribute a huge amount of value, not just in allowing people to use designs that might need enhancing, but in being part of the design process from the very beginning, because we understand audience and user and we can do this kind of research. So that’s one approach to begin sort of making those inroads. Another approach which you can test with is kind of a party trick, if you will, but you can test with folks is whenever we write, we do an odd thing. What we do is we–like to tell you, Janice, could you write an instruction manual on how to use slack? So your mind is going to do a couple of things very quickly since your sight, it’s going to pop up an image of what an instruction manual is and that visual representation of instruction manual is going to be crazily detailed, like you can tell me what the pages will look like, their layout and design, you can tell me will it be perfect-bound or stapled-bound. You can tell me the number, all that jazz, because you’ve got this mental default that says manual. But you’ve also got a mental default, let’s call it not a picture, but a video of what the process of using slack looks like. So whenever you write, you use words to describe that thing you see in your mental video to create the thing you see in that mental picture. And that’s how you write something up. When I read it, the onus for me as the reader is to reverse that process. I’ve got to take the thing you’ve given me, and first of all, I’ve got to recognize it. Is this really an instruction manual or is this just some ancillary stuff I put aside?

[00:41:02.240] – Kirk St Amant

But then when I read your words, I’ve got to recreate that mental video that you wrote about, as close as to what you had as possible to understand what you’re writing and use the thing. If those two things don’t align, we are going to have massive problems now, parlor trick part, have somebody write a set of instructions on how to tie their shoes and then give it to someone else at the same party and say, do not fill in any blanks, do literally what that person just wrote down. And you can see very quickly this ability to–this transfer of idea to individual back into idea. You can begin to see how it breaks down. I bring that up because we’re starting to mention visuals again, depending upon the primary sensory channel used by the individual. It could be sounds, it could be positioning, it could be tactician. But there’s a mental model that guides what we describe whenever we speak or write. And it’s what we unpack and try to recreate mentally to conceptualize what someone is writing or talking about. And by using little tricks like this, by helping individuals realize there’s a lot more going on here than we understand. And these folks actually understand it and they seem to know what it’s taken to get the right picture to describe when they write or the right sensory imprint to recreate when they build something, they need to be a part of this design process. Those sound both very like simplistic tasks, but the power one can generate just by showing these kinds of things and very quickly can really make the right people aware that there’s a lot of value that can go into understanding the user we’re creating for before we even build something. And since, you know this concept of user and audience and how people use things, you should be involved in this process.

[00:42:52.640] – Janice Summers 


[00:42:53.480] – Kirk St Amant

That’s my soapbox speech.

[00:42:55.100] – Janice Summers 


[00:42:56.600] – Janice Summers 

But if you’re not involved in the process, then how would you report back useability because you’re just–you’re not involved in that part for whatever reason.

[00:43:05.890] – Kirk St Amant

Good question.

[00:43:07.410] – Janice Summers 

Because organizations have dynamics of their own, right?

[00:43:11.820] – Kirk St Amant

This is where that partnership we talked about between industry and academia can be really interesting. So you can’t get inroads into your company to do something. So you give me–ask my class to use or test this new app that you’ve just built. And then one of the things we can build into this relationship is my class can email contact, marketing or production of whomever it is, quality control as a group. And talk about–let me talk about all the issues we’ve encountered using your app and suddenly it’s on an organization’s radar. Now, once it’s on the radar, the question becomes, well, do we even need to talk about this? That’s a case in which if students say as they’re rendering these opinions, let people know we were trying this as part of a class working with this individual at your organization, if the technical writer feels comfortable being named in that way or just working with technical communicators at your organization, suddenly you’ve associated a problem that can be fixed with someone who’s aware of the problem and can fix it. And so that is a way to sort of raise that awareness of who in your organization can help with something 

[00:44:19.300] – Liz Fraley 

Nice move.

[00:44:22.100] – Kirk St Amant

Yeah, but at the end of the day market share talks and the more you can sort of explain how you affect market share dynamics, regardless of the channel you use, the more ability you have to speak and be heard, if you will.

[00:44:35.150] – Janice Summers 

 Right, right. I always say that if you’re in technical writing and you’re not buddies with your marketing department, you really want to be, because marketing has clout. And in this scenario, let’s just say that I’m a tech writer and I say, hey Kirk, can you class, just help test this out for me. You could give me that information. I could walk right over to marketing and I could totally, marketing would get involved if it’s a usability thing. So there are different ways. Sometimes it’s harder to go right over into engineering and say, hey, let me have the table. It’s easier for marketing to say, oh, no we’re at the table. Come on. 

[00:45:12.170] – Liz Fraley 


[00:45:12.610] – Kirk St Amant

Yeah, right. 

[00:45:13.720] – Janice Summers 

Because market share talks, legal ramifications also talk.

[00:45:19.410] – Kirk St Amant

Oh, yeah. Legal is a good friend to have.

[00:45:24.410] – Janice Summers 

Legal is the best group to have as your buddies because they need to protect the company and especially when you’re talking about things in the medical field, like anybody in medical field knows that, you know, legal is your buddy. And is it really time already?

[00:45:39.170] – Liz Fraley 

It really is time already. 

[00:45:41.230] – Janice Summers 


[00:45:41.630] – Liz Fraley 

I know we could talk with Kirk all day long.

[00:45:44.300] – Janice Summers 


[00:45:46.050] – Kirk St Amant

Well, thank you for the chance to chat. 

[00:45:48.960] – Janice Summers 

One quick question. 

[00:45:50.180] – Kirk St Amant


[00:45:52.120] – Janice Summers 

One is a sarcastic kind of comment, which is just kind of funny. You know, this question came in ahead of time and I looked like, are they joking? So let’s settle the question. Is cognitive psychology applicable in technical writing? 

[00:46:07.930] – Kirk St Amant

Yes, just simply because if we’re thinking about the things that we’re writing about, then we’re engaged in the act of cognition.

[00:46:15.570] – Janice Summers 

Yes. And another thing, too, if you are involved in minimalism and if you’re involved in DITA in any way, you already got cognitive psychology involved in technical writing, because that was what was leaned into heavily when that architecture was designed and minimalism came to be in tech writing. So, OK, good. Another question that came up that I’m like, OK, are you joking? This question was like, are you joking? If somebody had asked, wasn’t cognitive psychology discredited at the end of the 60s?

[00:46:54.900] – Kirk St Amant

Great question. There have been certain studies that came out in the 50s and in the 60s that have been either impossible to replicate. The Stanford Prison Experiment is a good one by Zimbardo, where claims are made about how individuals behave in terms of authority and apparently whether or not that it was actually a fake situation or not, you have to ask other individuals about that. But things like that didn’t actually happen. And then you’ve got people like Vicary who did some of the first studies on subliminal advertising, and his claim was he went to a movie theater and inserted like a slide, we call it a slide now, but a frame or a paneled of movie film that said something about food and that drove more people to the snack counters, you know, became very popular, was put into marketing books in the late 50s and Vicary later made it but I didn’t actually do the study. 

[00:47:48.370] – Janice Summers 


[00:47:48.630] – Kirk St Amant

 So you do have things like, you know, that come up. Now, with that said, I’m almost done. The whole key to all of this is Cog-Psyc valid or not, comes down to replicability. Can people replicate the results effectively and overtime? And if so, then there’s a good, good chance that what they’re talking about is useful. Right. But if not, maybe not. One final thing on that, because this came up over during this current situation we’re in. Last month, a group of researchers from Duke published a study that showed that fMRI–functional MRI machines–the results that were showing up in relation to those studies, might not be as effective as people thought they were, because while MRIs measure blood flow to the brain, and that’s been used to indicate that neural activities happening in the brain, it turns out when you have the same people, try the same process later, they’re going to register, in many cases, to different fMRI. Possibly because since they’ve seen the topic once before, they don’t need as much directed blood flow to the brain to deal with a new topic. But we’re not quite sure what it means at this time. This is very new. It came out, I believe it was in June. 

[00:49:01.330] – Liz Fraley 


[00:49:02.530] – Kirk St Amant

So all the research related to fMRI’s and cognitive psychology could be suspect to change. I don’t know. 

[00:49:08.820] – Janice Summers 


[00:49:10.770] – Kirk St Amant

But I mean, these are all things–the question, has it been discredited? Some has, some they keep testing and some seems to keep working. And that’s what it comes down to, how is this being tested.

[00:49:22.530] – Janice Summers 

But I mean, if any branch of psychology to, some studies or results that were reported were incorrect and they’re being disproven. But that’s the study in science as well. 

[00:49:34.390] – Kirk St Amant


[00:49:34.730] – Janice Summers 

It’s always prove, disprove, prove, disprove. And the cream rises to the top, right, and they can be proved over and over again. And that we hang on to. So it’s not like cognitive psychology as a whole is a bunch of hooey, it’s not. There are some studies that have not been done correctly. Right. OK, so we have to go, unfortunately. But I want to have you back. Please say you’ll come back.

[00:50:02.130] – Kirk St Amant

Sure. I’m happy to thank you for the opportunity to sit and chat. This is fun. 

[00:50:06.050] – Janice Summers 

There’s so much more we should unpack with you. It’s just this has been great.

[00:50:10.470] – Liz Fraley 

We do have one comment I want to share. Hands down, best webinar I’ve been to ever, maybe.

[00:50:16.050] – Kirk St Amant

 Oh, thanks. Where do I send the check for that comment?

[00:50:20.260] – Liz Fraley 

 We love it. it’s awesome.

[00:50:20.410] – Janice Summers 

That’s right. Where does the check go? Thanks, Mom.

[00:50:25.530] – Liz Fraley 

Awesome. Thank you so much for being here and for everybody sending in such really good questions.

[00:50:29.700] – Janice Summers 

Yes. Thanks, everybody we would see you next time on Room42.

[00:50:34.140] – Kirk St Amant

Take care, keep safe.

[00:50:34.950] – Liz Fraley 

Bye everyone. 

[00:50:35.580] – Janice Summers 

Yeah, you too.

In this episode

Kirk St.Amant is a Professor and the Eunice C. Williamson Endowed Chair of Technical Communication at Louisiana Tech University, and he is also the Director of Louisiana Tech’s newly formed Center for Health and Medical Communication. His research focuses on the psychology of usability and applying cognitive models to understand audience expectations and user preferences in different settings.

In Room 42, he’ll be discussing prior work he has done in examining psychology, usability, and design and talk about a new approach he’s been working with, called “scalable usability,” in which he combines ideas from intercultural communication with concepts from cognitive psychology to identify usability expectations in different contexts.



Publications on

Kirk says to look closely at these:

Reflexes Reactions and Usability Examining How Prototypes of Place Can Enhance UXD Practices

Of Scripts and Prototypes: A Two-part Approach to User Experience Design for International Contexts

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