Can You Ethically User Test Documents that Advance Oppressive Policies?

In April 2018, the Trump Administration enacted a policy of separating migrant families taken into federal custody at the U.S.-Mexico border. The policy, created to discourage future migrants from crossing into the United States, forced adult parents to separate from young children—many less than four years old. At the time of separation, authorities handed parents a document titled “Next Steps for Families” that provided information to parents on how to reunite with their children. 

But the “Next Steps for Families” document gave circuitous instructions and was difficult to use. As Hofstra professor Joseph Bartoletta argues, the document was so poorly designed that it was not only unhelpful to families, but further served to oppress migrants already in a stressful, traumatizing experience. For example, the first step in the document isn’t even a step, because it doesn’t include an action to be taken. Instead, it informs the reader that they are “currently in the custody of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Customs and Border Protection (CBP). You have been charged with the crime of illegal entry into the United States.”

Bartolotta wondered if the “Next Steps for Families” document had been user-tested to determine if it effectively conveyed instruction for reuniting families and whether such a document could be user tested ethically at all. He raises that very question in his article, “Usability Testing for Oppression,” published in “Communication Design Quarterly” in 2019. Bartolotta was interested in exploring “the ethical implications of user-centered research and usability testing when the design of a document operates as a tool of oppression.” Of course, it’s unlikely that the “Next Steps for Families” document would be user-tested at all considering that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (US CBP) didn’t even document the children’s identities and families of origin. Bartolotta is interested in examining what ethical responsibilities technical and professional communicators have in creating a document like the “Next Steps for Families” handout.

Bartolotta walks readers through a potential test plan for the “Next Steps for Families” document, using the Belmont Report—which outlines ethical standards for research involving human subjects—as a framework. He outlines potential research questions, test design, task list and participant recruitment. While ethical questions arise with testing an unethical document at all, it’s in participant recruitment where the truly concerning questions come up. As Bartolotta points out, it’d be incredibly hard to ethically recruit testers in this instance. Since the “Next Steps for Families” document is given to undocumented immigrants, test participants would have a similar status and participating in such user research could put them at greater risk.

Implicitly, Bartolotta argues that this document wasn’t just designed to be unusable but to further alienate and traumatize the people it pretends to help. But he further raises the question of what a technical communicator can do if given the task to write or user test such a document. Perhaps the bigger question, though, is whether technical communicators can ethically work for organizations or governmental administrations that enact oppressive policies.

Bartolotta argues that the TPC field must decide what’s acceptable practice when working within oppressive systems—particularly when it comes to processes like user testing, which can legitimize documents. While the exercise he walks readers through is largely intellectual, usability practitioners should consider the ethical implications of testing documents like the “Next Steps for Families” flier, even if they work outside an oppressive administration. (Bartolotta gives the example of NGO workers who might be trying to help migrants reunite with their children.) 

Ultimately, he calls for greater ethical training for user researchers and technical and professional communicators in general alongside training in methodologies. While that’s already true in academia, where institutions are bound by Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), we can only hope that industry and government take up the ethics mantle as well.


Usability Testing for Oppression, by Joseph Bartoletta

Viewpoint Written by Erica Lies, Texas State University

Edited by Laura Soran, Texas State University

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top