[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. This is Ryan Weber your host, I’m very excited to be here to present Dr. Marika Seigel, an Associate Professor of Technical Communication at Michigan Tech, and she’s joining us all the way, via Skype, from Estonia today to talk about her recent book, The Rhetoric of Pregnancy, which looks at books such as What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and Pregnancy for Dummies, as user help. So, let’s talk to her about some of the things that she found.
[Weber] Welcome to the podcast. I’m very excited to have you here. I wanted to talk about your book and the way that pregnancy guide books function as user manuals and user documentation. In your book, one of the things that you write is that, “The guidebooks and documentation available for pregnant women tend to facilitate functional rather than critical access to technological systems of prenatal care.” What do you mean by this?
[Marika Seigel] Well in terms of technical communication in general, if the user has functional access to a technology or technological system, it basically means that they have knowledge and the material access necessary to just engage with that system and do stuff with it. And I’m taking these terms from Adam Banks’ book Race Rhetoric in Technology. So, he talks about these different levels of access that you need in order to really meaningfully be able to negotiate a technological system. This is functional access, just the ability to engage. Now critical access is a few steps above that. So, ifI can access the technological system critically, I can not only use it, do stuff with it, but I can negotiate it. I can sort of critically engage or disengage with it, etc., so and ultimately that might also enable a user to be able to transform a technology or repurpose it in some way. In terms of pregnancy guide, a lot of technical communications concerns with functional access, right? So here’s how to operate your iron or your washing machine right? You just need to know how to do the thing and that’s fine but when you’re thinking about something like pregnancy, a reader of user of a pregnancy guide is going to be pregnant whether or not he has instructions for doing so. This isn’t really something that requires documentation but there’s a ton of it out there. You know hundreds of guide books and manuals, websites, magazines, and so I just used to be interested in why, why they’re here. You know what’s going on with this? And they started to emerge along with a medical system of prenatal care in the early 20th century and initially they were-they really made pretty explicit arguments about why users should engage with the system and sort of what the ideologies driving it were and this kind of thing. But as we got later in the 20thcentury, they started to take this more functional approach, so to be implicit. They assumed that these pregnant women was going to engage with the medical prenatal care system if she’s pregnant and they just talk about how to do so. So how to phone your doctor right to cause them the least inconvenience is one example; something like that. Or you know what a-what a prenatal visit might look like, what might go on there, things like that. And even now-in fact I think this functional approach has intensified with manuals like the For Dummies series for example or What to Expect When You’re Expecting. A lot of the pregnancy manuals take this sort of user-friendly model that’s been developed for computer documentation, right?
[Seigel] It started out with the Xerox for Dummies, and they’re applying it to pregnancy, and so the information is easy to access. It’s task oriented, you know there’s troubleshooting information, but it’s a little more problematic I think when you’re talking about a medical system and a body as a component to that. To look at the-the book, Pregnancy for Dummies, for example in my book I include an example of the table of contents. Again, you’ll see this kind of task orientation. So, for the second trimester it talks about prenatal visits, second trimester blood tests, amniocentesis, other prenatal tests and procedure. So here are the tasks you will engage in in order to become pregnant. And then when we look at the-what we might-they don’t call it troubleshooting, but we might think of it as the troubleshooting portion of this chapter. It’s things like gas, heartburn, bleeding, fetal abnormality, your incompetence for that, things like – (chuckle). So the troubleshooting focuses-portion all focus on the, you know pregnant body, things that might go wrong or things that might be risky about it and also the fetal body rather than focusing on things that might be risky about these prenatal tests and procedures for example right, which themselves can carry some risks or there might be reason that someone chooses to them or not to do them.
[Weber] So essentially books are treating the system as a given and then positioning the user to act responsibly as it defines it within that system and that sort of the critique that you’re making here?
[Seigel] Right and then another component of that functional orientation is that the books tend to define expert knowledge as only as medical knowledge and the user becomes sort of a novice in relation to that system. So that not producing-it’s not that medical knowledge isn’t expert but that the user might have their own kind of expertise that’s not demonstrated here.
[Weber] Okay great. In a similar way you talk about the need to broaden the notion of usability beyond what we often test in the lab, when we’re talking about these guidebooks. What do you mean by that? What is this broaden notion of usability and how is it helpful in this case?
[Seigel] What I’m talking about, maybe a broader approach to usability research just in general. That we might think about research methods that we’re using in other contexts as a kind of usability research. Struck me as I’ve taught, some usability and quite a bit of technical communication courses, that it tends to focus on this kind of functional access. So, can the user use the website to buy something. Or you know can the user-if she’s finding the information she needs, can she carry out the tasks. And that’s all great and I think really valuable, but in the case of something like a pregnancy guide that’s providing this health information, it won’t get at the question of whether the user has critical access to the system, whether they can sort of negotiate a system, those kinds of things. So, this broaden approach to usability research in my case, in my book, I’m talking about a sort of historical research and also rhetorical cultural analysis as also a type of usability research. And what I think these methods get at are questions of why rather than how.
[Seigel] So, rather than ask you know, “Okay what are the user needs? Is this documentation fulfilling those needs?” Or asking “How is the user come to these, articulated in a certain way so that she has these needs in the first place? Why do I feel that I need to find as a pregnant woman information about everything I eat that might put my fetus at some risk?” for example.
[Seigel] Or, “Why do I feel that I need to engage with the medical prenatal care system in a certain way?”
[Seigel] So that’s what I was trying to get at and that’s how I’d like to see usability research be expanded in these kinds of contexts.
[Weber] Okay great. So again, it’s coming back to this idea of adding the critical to the functional?
[Seigel] Right, right. Exactly and I think this could be applied to a lot of different contexts. I mean even when you’re thinking about a technology that might be asking users to do things differently from how they’ve been used to doing them before. This need to sort of rearticulate who that user of the technology is might be an important thing to do. You know I think Google did it with Gmail for example.
[Seigel] You know their instructions weren’t just like, “Here’s how you use it,” it was, “Here’s why you need to use it this way.” It’s a little bit of a different example but again it’s that rearticulation is going on I think.
[Weber] Lastly, your book concludes with some guidelines to improve communication about pregnancy in health care. Can you give us a few recommendations that you found?
[Seigel] Yeah, you know one thing I think is moving away, again from this functional orientation and this idea that it’s, the documentation, needs to stay out of the way and sort of be invisible, and stay out of the way of user’s engagement with the system. In some cases that’s really important and valuable but I think in the case of pregnancy guides for example, it’s important to engage those questions of why and make the reason that users might need to engage with the system or not engage with the system visible.
[Weber] So back to the Gmail example, if you draw that parallel, you know, why would you do things this way? What are some other alternatives?
[Seigel] Yeah and I think pregnancy guides, I mean you see midwifery oriented pregnancy guides doing this pretty explicitly. So, even Ina May Gaskin’s one famous figure there, and she pretty explicitly says, “Okay, prenatal care has been oriented around this technical medical model and I’m trying to reorient it toward this midwifery model that sees the patient maybe as a more complete person in a particular environment and pregnancy as a not so pathological thing.”
[Weber] Right, right.
[Seigel] And again I think this is something that could be done in a lot of different contexts. So how has the user been articulated and how can you make those articulations visible so that they can make it possible.
[Weber] Well I’m kind of reminded of this idea of you know hyper-usability, when documentation becomes or systems becomes so usual there’s really no power for these or they just kind of do whatever the system wants them to in a way because it’s so easy.
[Weber] It seems like part of what you’re talking about is giving women and their partners ways to ask questions about the technologies in which they’re engaging. Or even the information about the technologies that they’re engaging so that they can ask better questions, make more informed decisions instead of just assuming this is the test you’re going to get, or this is the way that things are going to be done.
[Seigel] Right and that you know the answer might be, “Yes this is a good test to get,” right? But it least those questions can be raised instead of it just being an inevitable progression.
[Weber] Yeah well this is really interesting. Thank you so much for talking about your work with us.
[Seigel] Thanks. Thanks for having me. I enjoyed it.