Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Zombies, Expertise, and Post-Apocalytic Scenarios

A lot of things kind of converged yesterday. I had lunch with my friend and colleague Miranda Bennett, and she was excited over a new game--lousy UI but engaging premise. Apparently you collect pieces and build a fort-like structure and then zombies come out to get you at night. I'm not a gamer, but I commented that zombies were a popular construct these days and wondered why. Miranda posited it was less about zombies and more about surviving in a post-Apocalyptic world. Hadn't thought about that. Most zombie movies do have that theme.

Miranda went on then to observe that people are being taught that they don't know how to cook (as she nuked her prepackaged lunch). She pointed out that even the simplest dishes, such as baked chicken breast, come prepackaged and pre-prepared. Add to that the other ways technology has embedded expertise into our tools, e.g., spell checker, calculators, etc., and no wonder we view post-Apocalyptic scenarios with horror--we will be helpless. Maybe the zombies are just metaphors for our atrophied brains--that would account for their craving to eat brains.

All this on the same day I received my author's copy of Qualitative Research in Technical Communication, edited by James Conklin and George Hayhoe. At long last, the findings from my doctoral research got published as Chapter 14. In it my major professor, Tom Reeves, and I discuss the role of experts on usability teams. They can streamline the process and even improve the results, but at a cost to team learning. We rely on experts and take them at their word, sometimes deferring our own critical thinking and creativity.

As user assistance tries to take the role of expert (see my article on User Assistance in the Role of Domain Expert in UXmatters) how do we avoid contributing to post-Apocalyptic impotence (PAI--I just made that up)?

I think the answer is simple, expertise should be about transferring insight and not about dictating steps. It should enrich the question so the user can wrap the answer in his or her own context and data. That way the user is enabled and not just directed. See my column in UXmatters Making the Deal: Supporting the Demo with User Assistance for a practical example.

1 comment:

Lee said...

Your point in the last paragraph is right on the money. I realized this a few weeks ago when trying to follow a departmental process that one of my fellow writers had written. I got frustrated following detailed steps that didn't give me any kind of insight into what I was really trying to do. It made me reevaluate my own tasks to see if I was doing the same thing to my customers. Thanks for the article.