64.2, May 2017

Crossing the Divide: Implications for Technical Communication User Advocates

Rachel Tofteland-Trampe, University of Minnesota


Purpose: Technical communication practitioners and scholars need to push the boundaries of user experience scholarship to develop more culturally sensitive design and research methods that address global digital divides. In this spirit, I examined the local ways in which community technology center (CTC) tutors helped teach inexperienced users how to use information and communication technologies (ICTs) during basic computer courses.

Method: I collected data through ethnographic methods including participant-observation, qualitative interviews, and extant documents. Using grounded theory (Charmaz, 2006; Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1990), I developed open codes and constantly compared codes to develop categories and properties.

Results: Inexperienced ICT users are unable to utilize online and other resources because they often lack the necessary physical experience working with ICTs and the cultural knowledge to operate them. CTC tutors serve as local technical communication experts who construct effective methods for helping learners by: 1) utilizing visual representations, 2) utilizing audible representations, and 3) heightening learner awareness for visual cues.

Conclusion: Inexperienced users struggle with using ICT hardware and software. An on-the-ground approach to studying usability in the field makes user experience research both more inclusive and comprehensive. Such insight from inexperienced users sheds light on how digital inequalities persist and how practitioners and scholars can work to ensure inexperienced users are not forgotten in UX research.

Keywords: user experience (UX), community technology center (CTC), information and communication technology (ICT) users, digital divides, ethnography

Practitioner’s Takeaway:

  • Inexperienced ICT users often lack confidence in using ICTs because they lack experience using them and have not accumulated ICT cultural knowledge. For instance: 1) tutorial resources are useless if users cannot use the mouse, and 2) design features woven into interfaces are not intuitive.
  • Technical communicators should seek local ways of using ICTs by conducting fieldwork to develop more nuanced understandings of inexperienced users and the forms of technical knowledge tutors pass on to users.
  • When designing informational resources, technical communicators should consider novice ICT user experiences and create public service sites that are user- and mobile-friendly.

“I wanna get there so I can be able to stand up on my own feet knowin’ that I can do this. Accomplished sayin’ I can use the computer on my own, not just only get stuck.”

(Roxanne, learner participant)

Though usability and technical communication have a long history (Redish, 2010), such research typically focuses only on the experience of seasoned information and communication technology (ICT) users and for only a short amount of time. To add to the landscape of usability and user experience (UX) scholarship, I present findings from a situated study of inexperienced ICT users, providing crucial insight into digital disparities. The learner participants in this study attended a community technology center (CTC) located in a public library branch where they took free, introductory computer and Internet classes. They demonstrated an undeniable eagerness to learn but a lack of confidence as they faced challenges when trying to go online and utilize unfamiliar hardware. Though websites offer well-intentioned tutorials aimed at inexperienced users, the helpfulness of these sites is limited when users have never placed their hand on a mouse. Insights from participant learners at the CTC highlight important usability issues that allow digital inequalities to persist.

In this study, CTCs refer to public computer labs made available to community members so they can access computer applications and the Internet for free. This is a little-explored site for technical communication research, offering an important setting for learning about how less-understood, inexperienced ICT users are working to develop their digital literacies. This knowledge is particularly important because little is known about such users within the field of technical communication, and designing for multicultural contexts requires knowledge of various ICT user experiences. The participants in this study are underrepresented in usability and UX literature based on ICT experience, age (many learner participants were retirement age), and race (Black). In line with Selwyn’s (2006) work, this study provides an alternative to “stark dichotomous terms” (p. 275) that label users and to statistics that draw lines between income and level of ICT use. Rather, these findings provide details and examples from the front lines of digital divides, details that are only accessible through immersion with people at the field site. Such knowledge captures what it means to learn how to use ICTs without the benefit of prior knowledge and what it is to teach learners how to use ICTs.

The value of localization approaches such as this one is well established within technical communication scholarship (Batova & Clark, 2015; Gonzales & Zantjer, 2015; Sun, 2006, 2012). More specifically, Sun (2006, 2012) argues that a user localization approach allows for a more detailed and contextualized account of how users utilize a particular technology within their own cultural context. These cultural practices shed light on what is relevant and valued to a group of people, which is crucial information when seeking to understand user goals and motivations. User localization requires attention to audience, a familiar skill to technical communicators (Redish & Barnum, 2011). Further, technical communication’s roots in rhetoric (Peeples & Hart-Davidson, 2012) position practitioners and scholars particularly well to contribute to improving user experiences. Despite the field’s efforts to better understand users and their cultural practices, there is still work to be done to expand how we approach culturally sensitive design and research methods to better serve global ICT users. For instance, rarely are the perspectives of novice ICT users sought out and viewed as valuable contributions for usability studies. If technical communication practitioners and scholars are going to work as user advocates to develop more culturally sensitive design and research methods for confronting global digital divides, they must look to the perspectives and experiences of those with less-privileged information and communication technology (ICT) access.

In this article, I present a portion of findings from a larger study focused on the ways in which technical communication is engaged by learners and staff members at an urban CTC. Because the user-participants for my study are predominantly working toward functional literacies (Selber, 2004), their interactions with tutors reveal little-explored and needed perspectives of the challenges users face when they are first learning how to use a computer. Further insight on instructional strategies and user interfaces for novices are gained and the limitations of these resources are brought to light. The particular field setting of the CTC also played a role in revealing these types of findings. For example, my findings show how CTC tutors play critical roles as they provide needed contextual information to learners while learners are developing their digital literacies—an insight that may not normally be revealed in a controlled lab.

This study contributes to user experience and technical communication scholarship by presenting important, local cultural practices displayed through interactions at the CTC in a setting that diverges from well-funded usability labs or business environments. Findings from this research provide technical communication user advocates examples from the field on how to understand the usability aspect of digital divides, revealing that obstacles such as orchestrating the mouse, interpreting icons, or recognizing what features of an interface are clickable are significant barriers preventing inexperienced users from using ICTs independently. Digital divides will persist if these particular user needs are not addressed.

Review of Literature

Community technology centers (CTCs)

Previous research has portrayed CTCs as sites for contending with the digital divide (Davies, Pinkett, Servon, & Wiley-Schwartz, 2003; Salovey, Williams-Piehota, Mowad, Moret, Edlund, & Anderson, 2009). In a 2003 report to the Ford Foundation, Davies et al. (2003) note that they are often “located in disadvantaged neighborhoods with rapidly changing demographics” and they “are important not only because of their specified digital divide work, but also because they act as key public spaces in areas where there is a dearth of such community places” (p. 4). They categorize CTCs as typically being non-profit, community-based organizations that offer information technology (IT) to people that are unable to access it. Davies et al. differentiate between three different types of CTCs that vary in terms of their organization. One is a stand-alone center where IT needs and access issues are addressed. Other CTCs are located in multi-service agencies and are part of a larger organization that offers programming to the public such as a public library, YWCA, or community development council. A third type of CTC could be part of a larger network of CTCs, such as the Austin FreeNet, a network home to 34 centers. The CTC focused on in this research, referred to by the pseudonym Urban CTC, is a multi-service agency located within a public library branch.

From usability to UX design

Technical communication and usability have an expansive history, which Redish (2010) dates to at least the 1970s. Drawing from Redish and Barnum (2011), usability means “that the people who use (or should use) what you develop can find what they need, understand what they find, and use what they find to meet their needs” (p. 93). Duin (1993) affirms that “usability is the degree to which an intended audience can perform the desired tasks where those tasks are usually performed” (p. 308, emphasis in original).

Initial areas of usability for technical communicators focused on documents such as brochures and regulations. In the 1980s, the advent of computers brought with it new types of usability work, and usability labs emerged as an option for testing user experience. Researchers would “construct an environment like that of the intended users and watch them use the product and its information” (Duin, 1993, p. 308). Eventually, a move to “user-centered design” (Redish, 2010, p. 196), or UCD, occurred, which involved a preference for a more in-depth approach or “deeper infusion” (p. 196) of usability work into the design process. According to Getto and Beecher (2016), UCD meant ensuring the requirements of users remained at the core of design. Today, UX design is a more involved approach to design than usability and builds from UCD (Getto & Beecher, 2016). Central to the User Experience Professionals Association’s (UXPA) definition of UX is that it is “an approach to product development that incorporates direct user feedback throughout the development cycle (human-centered design)” (UXPA, 2016, para. 1).

Part of understanding a user’s experience in greater depth involves considering user needs and the cultural context of the user’s setting. User localization (Sun, 2006) is one approach for learning about cultural features that influence how users would actually use a particular product in their own context. Sun (2006) contrasts this with developer localization, which refers to the efforts developers make to tailor products. They may rely on generalizations of culture to localize, such as Hofstede’s cultural dimensions of power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism and collectivism, masculinity and femininity, and long- versus short-term orientation, which results in an integration of only “dominant cultural values” (Sun, 2012, p. 12). When this happens, other influential features that shape one’s life experiences, such as gender and age, are overlooked (Sun, 2012). Because generalized cultural constructs for localization are limiting, Sun (2006) argues that localization practices must be expanded, stating, “we should move toward designing local technology with rich understandings of use activities in context instead of simply applying cultural conventions to localization work” (p. 474).

This study reinforces the need for user localization research and expands past UX design scholarship by learning from nontraditional user participants in their local setting. More specifically, novice users at Urban CTC are unlikely user participants because they may not want to be watched by experts or do not have time to participate due to other life obligations—that is, if a usability or UX researcher was to even reach out to these users in the first place. Such researchers may not explore an applied setting such as a CTC, making the insights from this study that much rarer and more valuable. Although anthropological data collection methods and usability studies have intersected in the past (Duin, 1993; Redish & Barnum, 2011), the contexts for these have often been business settings. Usability labs and field research in business environments are very different settings from CTCs for gathering information about user experience. For example, well-funded labs are designed to capture as much data as possible, equipped with high-tech equipment, such as eye tracking software. Another luxury of this setting is verbal feedback from the user through think-aloud protocols and interviewing. While many types of information can be gathered in these settings, these more formal contexts do not reveal the same type of user experience that is illuminated in a public space such as a CTC. In this uncontrolled environment, users choose their own tasks on a computer, are often working under time constraints, and are in a setting they cannot control (e.g., they make due with distractions, such as cell phones ringing, people talking, and babies fussing). In other words, there are stressors and distractions in this type of setting that may impact their ability to focus or learn that may not be present in a controlled environment. Because the setting of this CTC is different from a lab or business setting, different practices and perspectives can be observed by carrying out fieldwork in such a site. In essence, Urban CTC differs from traditional contexts in that the participants and the setting diverge from what has been explored in user studies before, providing new and needed insights.

Building culturally relevant and sensitive ICT resources

Sun (2012) describes the assumption that computer users recognize the U.S. American manila file folder as a meaningful and culturally relevant artifact. In reminiscing about her experience first using a computer, she recalled her uncertainty regarding the “small yellow rectangular icon on the desktop” (p. 3) and how she made the connection years later between that icon and an actual manila folder, common fixtures of U.S. office contexts, while attending graduate school in the US. Selfe and Selfe (1994) have also written about politics woven into interfaces and the cultural systems produced in these environments. They have argued that select computer users are reflected in computer technologies and, because of this, other users are marginalized and may have difficulty learning the organizational structures of the programmed interface. Selfe and Selfe (1994) state that, “interfaces are cultural maps of computer systems, and as Denis Wood points out, such maps are never ideologically innocent or inert” (p. 485). These scholars demonstrate that one’s own cultural assumptions and the assumptions designers have integrated into interfaces often collide, causing confusion and alienation from technologies.

In order to build culturally sensitive online resources for novice users, technical communicators must understand their struggles and, as scholars indicate, stakeholder feedback (Getto, Cushman, & Ghosh, 2011) and participation (Walwema, 2016) are crucial. As previously discussed, taking an approach of combining ethnographic data collection methods with a community-based setting is unique in usability research, offering meaningful insight into novice ICT users’ experiences. Recently, Walton, Mays, and Haselkorn (2016) critiqued the narrowness of technical communication’s business-related scholarship and called technical communicators to look to non-industry settings for insight into technical communication’s role in “work practices” (p. 86). My research offers one response to this call, focusing on user experience in a non-profit organization (CTC in a public library), an on-the-ground setting where technical communication work is conducted through interactions between CTC tutors and learners. I am reaching beyond business field settings and UX labs to meet users where they are and to improve user experiences for those who are historically underrepresented in UX scholarship. Such an approach is needed to appreciate the experience of inexperienced ICT users and to develop more welcoming and accommodating designs and research methods.


The goal of my overarching study, to better understand the technical communication texts and communication practices present at a CTC, is inspired by the central research question Rude (2009) describes as a common thread for the field of technical communication: “How do texts (print, digital, multimedia; visual, verbal) and related communication practices mediate knowledge, values, and action in a variety of social and professional contexts?” (p. 176, emphasis in original). This goal led me to collect data through participant observation, qualitative interviews, and extant documents. I wanted to learn from the perspectives of learners and tutors and wanted to better understand the resources drawn upon within the CTC. To do so, I served as a participant-observer for 10.5 months, volunteering nearly weekly, and conducted 21 interviews with 19 participants, interviewing some staff members multiple times. As a participant-observer, I served as a tutor by answering patron questions, teaching computer classes, and tutoring individuals one-on-one for computer help. Some of the field examples I present in this study are from my own experiences serving as a volunteer tutor and interacting with learners at Urban CTC. The subset of findings I present stem from learner and tutor interactions that I observed and recorded in field notes and memos. These findings illustrate the usability obstacles inexperienced learners encountered at Urban CTC and the ways in which tutors provided information to help learners use ICTs. As Sun (2006) notes, understanding local cultural practices can illuminate unique features of a cultural context, which is important for understanding technology use or non-use.

Urban CTC

The setting for my data collection is a CTC, known by the pseudonym Urban CTC, located within an urban, Southeastern U.S. library branch. A computer lab within this CTC housed 16 desktop computers, which patrons were allowed to use for two, one-hour sessions per day. Patrons were mostly free to use the Web and other applications on these computers. The CTC also contained several workforce computers, which were not located in a lab. These included eight desktops located in the central, main area of the library, and two more by the outside edge of the library away from the more public main area. Patrons were allowed one, three-hour session on workforce computers each day, but their activities were restricted to job- and school-related tasks such as resume writing and homework. This library branch was notable in its system due to the high number of available computers for patrons.


The interview participants for my overarching study included library staff members and individual patrons who attended the library’s weekly computer classes or one-on-one tutoring sessions. In total, I interviewed 11 Black adult learners (10 women; 1 man), ranging in age from 50s to 80s, and eight (of 12) staff members. All the staff members I interviewed were women (seven Black, one White). I relied on interviewing learners after class and tutoring sessions, because I rarely saw them in the library outside of these sessions. This made scheduling interviews challenging when patrons had a bus to catch, family obligations, or another library course to attend afterward.

The patrons that came into the lab for classes had diverse motivations. Some learners wanted to become independent ICT users so they would not have to rely on others for help. Others wanted to develop their digital literacies so they could volunteer in their church or be more marketable for employment. Another learner cited wanting to engage in continuous learning and to stay updated on the technological changes she was observing. These ambitions brought them into a variety of introductory computer courses.

Data collection

I utilized ethnographic data collection methods that included field notes, memos, and qualitative interviews. I recorded my observations by taking handwritten notes on the curriculum booklets, a notebook, and scrap paper. After my volunteer sessions at the CTC, I typed up all of my notes and composed memos. I conveniently sampled participants for qualitative interviews by recruiting patrons in weekly computer classes. Before class started, I was typically introduced by one of the staff members teaching class and then had an opportunity to provide a brief overview of what I wanted to talk to patrons about. Those who were willing would approach me after class, though in some instances I asked eligible participants if they were interested after class had completed. I recruited staff member participants by asking them in person when I was in for my volunteer shift. I followed Weiss (1994) for conducting qualitative interviews and structuring an interview guide that I used during interviews. I adapted my interview guide throughout my data collection process to account for whether or not I was interviewing a patron or staff member. When interviewing patrons, I asked them about their motivations for and experiences with attending the CTC classes. Such questions included: why they were attending the computer classes, what their goals for learning to use computers were, how they made use of the curriculum resources in classes, did they observe networking between people in their classes, and what types of writing did they do while at a computer in the CTC. For staff members who taught computer courses, I structured their interview questions around their experiences teaching: what brings them to teaching the classes, what are their perceptions about patron motivations for attending classes, and did they observe learners writing in the classes. I also interviewed staff members who did not teach classes, and my questions centered on their experiences helping patrons at the workforce computers and sometimes on their personal devices (e.g., frequency at which they helped patrons, frequently asked questions, and types of help extended). I recorded interviews on two audio recording devices, an electronic audio recorder and my smartphone, and used both to replay the audio for transcribing. This proved exceedingly useful, as sometimes when speech was hard to make out on one device, it was easier to understand on the other.

Data analysis

I took a grounded theory approach (Charmaz, 2006; Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1990) to analyze my data, utilizing constant comparisons to develop codes and categories. The data sources for my overarching study included field notes, memos, interview transcripts, and extant documents. For the aspect of the study I present here, I draw from my field notes and memos regarding my time as a participant-observer at Urban CTC.

When open coding, I followed Charmaz’s (2006) guidelines for coding incident-by-incident. Because this process yielded numerous codes for what I was observing at the CTC, I began what Strauss and Corbin (1990) call “categorizing” (p. 65, emphasis in original) my codes to get a sense of which incidents or codes in my data were similar and could be grouped together into provisional categories. I chose to focus on codes regarding how tutors helped learners in the CTC because these interactions were theoretically relevant (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) to my overarching study. Additionally, the number and variety of examples of data regarding how tutors were helping learners inspired me to focus on such data points.

I further developed this category of “how tutors help learners” by going back to my data and comparing instances of how this was happening. In particular, I kept track of examples for how tutors were helping: they assisted learners with adjusting to the cultural context of ICTs by telling them about online security features; they helped them learn to use hardware, such as jump drives and the mouse; they pointed out where the menu button is in Google Chrome; they helped patrons with logging into their email accounts; and they explained how to print at the CTC. Keeping track of these examples allowed me to see a bigger picture of all of the different ways learners receive help from tutors at the CTC. From there, I noticed that tutors were often helping learners navigate visual obstacles within ICT interfaces (e.g., how to tell which browser one was in) and how to use the mouse and keyboard (e.g., how to rest one’s hand on the mouse). When writing about these particular help-related interactions between tutors and learners, I labeled, or categorized, them as instances of CTC tutors serving as technical communication experts, because they were extending technical knowledge to learners for how to use ICTs. Two aspects, or properties, of this category are presented in this study, which include the specific ways tutors help learners by constructing visual and audible representations and the ways in which tutors point out the visual details or cues across ICT interfaces.


Through this study, I found that CTC tutors are local technical communication experts who are skilled at identifying the needs of inexperienced ICT users and at constructing effective methods for helping them advance their digital literacies. Practices they deploy reveal that inexperienced users lack foundational, contextual knowledge needed for operating computers, such as how to use a mouse or how to navigate online interfaces, knowledge that is absolutely required to operate ICTs. Tutors help learners by constructing visual and audible representations and by serving as visual cue experts who heighten learners’ awareness of such cues.

Tutors utilize representations: Visual and audible

Tutors shed light on visual cues on screen and assist novices with physically manipulating computer hardware. They serve as local technical communication experts by providing audience-appropriate examples for learners off screen using visual and audible representations.

Visual representation Visual representations are in-person, off-screen examples provided by tutors. CTC tutors occasionally point out where one’s thumb, index, and middle fingers are supposed to rest on a mouse for a desktop computer. In one course, a staff member physically placed his hands on a mouse to show a learner where one’s palm and fingers rest. The student watched intently and mimicked what the staff member did with his hands as he learned how to place his fingers on the mouse. This physical representation offered the learner an example that was not screen-based. Furthermore, the learner could try and mimic it simultaneously, offering him an opportunity for immediate feedback. Without being able to manipulate a computer mouse, learners are unable to access the resources that ICTs offer.

In another class, Susan, a pseudonym for one of the CTC tutors, used her hand to mimic the actions of the mouse cursor to show the learner how the mouse’s image would change when it was moved over the address bar in a Web browser. The learner was unaware that the mouse would be in the shape of a white arrow when it was over an area of a webpage where text could not be entered and that it would change to a cursor when the mouse was over an area where text could be entered. To explain this transition from arrow to cursor, the staff member created a visual representation of an arrow with her hand by piercing her four fingers together and sticking her thumb out. This real-time visual representation for the learner functioned as a quick example so the learner could know what to expect when moving the mouse around the browser interface. It may have been easier to see than deciphering the change on screen because it was presented on a larger scale. For inexperienced users, especially those who are older, noticing such subtle nuances can be challenging. As McKee and Blair (2007) indicate, older users may be subjected to additional physical and material obstacles because of their financial and health situations. Visual representations offer learners a way to learn about a computer concept without having to refer to something on the screen of a monitor. For inexperienced ICT users, visual representations provide crucial mechanisms that allow them to actually use the hardware.

Audible representation Learners also have to gain familiarity with the pervasive “double click” in order to open programs with the mouse. The second type of representation I observed at the CTC is an audible representation, which occurs when a tutor mimics the sound of the hand-held computer mouse clicking. For users who have not had the chance to train their hand, learning to double click the left button of a standard, two-button, hand-held mouse is hard. They have to ensure their right index finger is on the left button and that it clicks at a rate that the computer can understand as an effective “double click.” For those just beginning, a click and hold is often followed seconds later by a second click, rendering their efforts useless. Tutors utilize an audible representation to simulate the mouse clicking. They say, “Click-click” rapidly to convey how fast learners have to do this action. An audible representation is a way tutors can convey the sound the mouse should make so learners can grasp the rate at which they need to click. This is a creative way tutors transfer the embodied knowledge they have built up over time through experience using a mouse. When tutors mimic the sound the mouse should make, they quickly transfer this embodied information in a way that does not require the tutor to remove the learner’s hand from the mouse or the learner to look on screen. This audible message provides a sound template that learners then try to match by pressing the button with their index finger. Having learners do this on their own gives them the opportunity to practice it themselves and teach their body how to make the hardware work for them.

These two types of representations, visual and audible, are unique strategies allowing tutors to present examples that are not screen-based. Representations at the CTC deliver information about visual cues and deliver information about how to physically operate computer hardware by providing material, non-screen examples, which are useful strategies for teaching inexperienced users. Across these examples, tutors are serving as local technical communication experts. They adeptly intervene when learners are struggling with understanding visual nuances of unfamiliar interfaces and they find unique ways to make visual cues or hardware obstacles less challenging. Equipped with knowledge about the inexperienced users that visit their library, they teach learners how to interpret multimodal messages in localized and effective ways. Subtle visual cues and nuances across interfaces are often overlooked obstacles by experienced users, but yet they serve as real barriers to novice users, preventing them from taking advantage of online and other resources.

Tutors as visual cue experts

Tutors at Urban CTC also serve as visual cue experts by utilizing a variety of techniques for helping learners manage interface usability obstacles that show learners what visual cues to look for on screen. The course curriculum at the CTC calls tutors to inform learners about online security. Susan assisted learners with raising their awareness of the visual cues for online security by providing an example of online bill payment. To teach learners about safely conducting online transactions, she explained how and where to look for an icon in the shape of a lock and to look for an “s” at the end of “http” in their Web address by going to Amazon.com and taking the steps necessary to purchase a product. Without the critical knowledge of how to look for visual security indicators, inexperienced users are especially easy targets for crime, making CTC tutors valuable resources not just for Selber’s (2004) notion of functional literacies but for critical literacies as well.

Lacking knowledge of visual security cues poses further risk when inexperienced users attempt to navigate online account security technologies. As I was assisting patrons by the workforce computers, a middle-aged couple was at a computer trying to reset an account password. They asked me what the green line meant underneath the password, and I explained that this was a way for the company to indicate the password’s strength to the user. This particular interface did not include alphabetic text (e.g., green line paired with “strong”) to convey the strength of the password, a feature that would have been helpful to this couple. Novice users are at risk of becoming victims of fraudulent activity when they lack an understanding of the visual cues associated with password protection. Each day, tutors at Urban CTC extend important contextual details about using ICTs that learners need but have a hard time accessing elsewhere.

A third example of how staff members help raise awareness for visual cues involves teaching learners how to type a Web address into the address bar. During a class, Susan directed learners to the curriculum booklet, which offered a list of Web addresses and brief descriptions. Learners were to practice typing the addresses into their address bar. Applying her localized knowledge from years of experience teaching users at Urban CTC, Susan identified that novices in her previous classes would type in the colon after “.com” and informed learners that they should not type this into the address bar (See Figure 1).

Figure 1. CTC curriculum booklet URL

Susan knew her learners had not yet been taught the basic conventions for a Web address. Without this knowledge, finding resources for learning how to use a computer online is that much more difficult for learners.

Yet another way that tutors informed new ICT users of the visual nuances of interfaces was by explaining how to activate program windows and textboxes. Inexperienced users are often unaware that they need to click on, or activate, the window of a program and textboxes in order to be able to use or type in that program. For instance, in a Microsoft Word Basics class, one of the tasks the tutor was guiding learners through was learning how to use the vertical and horizontal scroll bars. When learners did not have the Word document activated, they had no way to manipulate the scroll bar. An inactivated window in Microsoft Office 2013 does not show the horizontal and vertical scroll bars, and the document’s name and additional features for expanding or constricting the window size are also muted in gray. These subtle visual cues often go unnoticed by inexperienced users, so tutors inform and remind learners to click on the program window to work in a program or edit. Figure 2 notes the features of an inactivated Microsoft Word 2013 window.

Figure 2. An inactivated Microsoft Word 2013 window

Struggles such as these occur not only with program windows but with textboxes as well. During one of the PowerPoint classes I taught, I explained the visual differences between an activated and inactivated textbox, illustrating that an activated text box has dotted lines around the textbox and white squares for adjusting the size or angle of the textbox. By helping learners see what it looks like to have a textbox activated (see Figure 3) and showing them that clicking on textboxes is necessary for communicating with the computer, tutors again serve as visual cue experts.

Figure 3. Activated textbox in PowerPoint 2013 with dotted lines and adjustment squares

Tutors also guide learners to look for visual cues that can orient them to what programs they have open. For example, when observing an Internet Basics course, one of the learners asked the lead instructor how to tell which browser she was in (both Internet Explorer and Chrome had been talked about in class because they were available on the computers). Susan told learners to look for the “blue E” for Internet Explorer (IE). By using color and a description of the IE logo, Susan demonstrated that she was aware that a new learner may not have the visual knowledge of browser icons and that describing the logo was a way to help the learner build familiarity. When learners have little experience using an Internet browser on a desktop computer, the visual nuances that seasoned users understand are hard to notice. Tutors know that icons can appear in different locations on computers (e.g., desktop, menu bar) and are sometimes hard to decipher. They know that alerting learners to the visual features of such an important fixture of computers is central to users’ ability to utilize ICTs.

Visual cues matter to ICT users. When they lack knowledge of them, using interfaces is confusing or debilitating. Because inexperienced ICT users are often unaware of such meaningful features integrated across interfaces, the cues make ICT use challenging. This can prevent inexperienced users from composing their own documents for job applications, sending and receiving emails, or searching for economic or health-related resources online. Therefore, the role CTC tutors play as visual cue experts is vital to combatting digital divides.


For technical communication practitioners and scholars interested in examining user experiences in an applied setting, this study provides new UX insights from the field of how underserved, novice ICT users interacted with technologies away from a traditional usability lab. The nontraditional field site and the ethnographic data collection methods for my research contributed to the types of user experiences I was able to learn about. Such experiences would not be available if this type of research was conducted in a lab or in a business setting. By spending time observing practices and interactions at Urban CTC, I was able to access the everyday occurrences and learn from underrepresented users who visit the CTC to conduct their own work or attend computer classes. In addition, I became familiar with the multifaceted roles tutors play and how they serve as both empathic resources who see patrons managing real life stresses resulting from limited ICT access and as valuable assets who help learners advance their digital literacies in profound and patient ways. The findings from this study illuminate the importance of well-informed tutorial materials that integrate experiences and perspectives of inexperienced users, the digital literacy acquisition challenges facing users, and how technical communicators and UX designers can benefit from user localization approaches.

One of the unique features of this study is that it highlights underrepresented users and their experiences in a local context. Lack of representation in usability and UX scholarship may stem from a user’s limited digital literacies, which makes this research especially valuable because it shares insight on users who are working to build their functional literacies so that they may eventually develop more critical literacies (Selber, 2004). For example, based on observations of Urban CTC computer classes, learners may have a hard time completing predetermined tasks for a usability test (Unger & Chandler, 2009) prepared by UX designers. Additionally, users were often pressed for time and may not have been able to participate in a study that required participation from users throughout several stages of design. The users at the CTC also contrast users in a lab setting because they are not working in isolation or periodically providing reflections to designers while completing their tasks. Rather, for the most part, Urban CTC users in a computer class had a social experience, interacting in a network of fellow learners and receiving ongoing feedback from tutors, which allowed them to seek clarification in real time. The nontraditional user setting of the CTC allowed me to learn from users who are underrepresented in the literature and who provide important insight into inexperienced ICT user experiences that are inaccessible in a lab setting.

The practices and interactions at the CTC revealed that, despite users having access to ICTs and instructional materials, there were still particular types of knowledge users needed to acquire before being able to operate ICTs. When users have little experience moving a mouse arrow across a screen and stopping it perfectly on an icon or have yet to independently formulate their own search terms and type them into Google, online computer tutorials meant to meet these users where they are at are insufficient. There is a perception that because there are resources available to help learners with computer basics, those who would seek these out could actually use them. My observations tell a different story. Novice ICT users who are still working to develop functional literacies (Selber, 2004) are unable to take advantage of these resources because: 1) they often lack the physical experience interacting with the hardware of technology (e.g., resting palm and fingers on mouse, isolating the correct finger to click the intended button the correct amount of times), and 2) they usually do not arrive at computers with the cultural systems of meaning associated with ICTs. These findings align with McKee and Blair’s (2007) assertion that “While some older adults’ lack of access is certainly related to economic issues, much of it relates to not having the technological literacies needed for using a computer, accessing the Internet, and navigating the Web” (pp. 14–15). The findings from my research indicate that even when physical computers with an Internet connection are available for use, inexperienced users cannot use them due to usability obstacles resulting from a dearth of experience manipulating hardware and software or limited cultural knowledge associated with ICTs.

Even as ICTs become more common, keeping up with cultural knowledge becomes more complex as these technologies continue to advance. In writing about Web page design, Stolley (2011) describes some of the conventions for using color and techniques of design to cue users to where they are located within a particular website (e.g., constructing tabs and assigning them particular colors when users are there). However, these design strategies fail when inexperienced users may not yet recognize tabs as a navigational scheme or that color variations are to symbolize locations in a particular place. Until a novice user has had the time to build up the cultural knowledge associated with modern Web design, these visual cues are not as obvious as designers may think they are. Navigating Web 2.0 webpages of today is not like navigating Web 1.0 pages of the 1990s. Web links are rarely identifiable as underlined blue text anymore, advertisements disguised as non-ads are the norm, and the interactivity between sites and users is exploding. Simply put, modern websites are more complex and dynamic, making detection of subtle visual cues challenging.

The learners at Urban CTC continue to work to develop their digital literacies in spite of these challenges, and they are not alone in their desire and fight to understand the cultural ecologies of ICTs in order to become confident, capable users. Roxanne, one of the CTC computer course participants I interviewed, stated that “I wanna get there so I can be able to stand up on my own feet knowin’ that I can do this.” Struggles for developing literacies are not new, and as we have observed over time, literacies often intersect with varying dimensions of power. For example, there is long history of literacy suppression in the US, and Black women have fought especially hard against racist, economic, and sexist barriers (Royster, 1990). Selfe and Hawisher (2014) explain that factors impacting digital literacy development range from income level and education to types of ICT access, one’s English proficiency, and the presence of people who can help. For learners at Urban CTC, these barriers linger as they work together with tutors to surmount the particular obstacles in the way of their digital literacy development. Their efforts are reminiscent of literary societies initiated by Black men and women in the 1800s to share in a community with others who were interested in advancing their literacies (McHenry & Heath, 2001; Royster, 1990). Similar communities have also been noted more recently, such as the contemporary women’s club where members supported one another by sharing “literacies, talents, and information” (p. 153) described by Moss and Lyons-Robinson (2014). Given the continued barriers encountered by Black women in developing their digital literacies, it should be no surprise that Urban CTC continues to serve as an important community resource for combatting digital divides.

Some of the obstacles these users face in acquiring digital literacies are woven into the material features of ICTs. In her research on four adults learning to read and write, Rosenberg (2015) writes that these learners chose to “pursue literacy despite material conditions that have repeatedly reminded them that literacy is not for them” (p. 2). In a similar fashion, material conditions at Urban CTC continue to suggest to inexperienced users that digital literacies are meant for others. As Selfe and Selfe (1994) have pointed out, computer interfaces reflect particular cultural contexts such as U.S. American professional offices, which can be confusing or alienating to those unfamiliar with that setting. Selfe and Selfe (1994) state, “Computer interfaces . . . are also sites within which the ideological and material legacies of racism, sexism, and colonialism are continuously written and re-written” (p. 484, emphasis in original). The findings in this study speak to how older eyes may not see the screen as easily and less trained hands find it more challenging to operate the mouse. Fortunately, CTC tutors help to mitigate these obstacles by offering feedback, helping learners recognize visual cues, and assisting with hardware.

One way technical communication practitioners and scholars can more critically engage with user experiences and the multitude of factors that influence their technology use is to pursue a user localization approach. Doing so, Sun (2006) argues, means we can uncover local ways of using technologies and develop more complex and nuanced understandings of how others interpret and use technologies instead of glossing over messy and complex features of local contexts when applying cultural dimensions. The tutors at Urban CTC set a good example for identifying and then modifying practices based on user feedback. Such user feedback led to visual and audible representations and strategies for illuminating difficult-to-recognize visual cues. Unlike other approaches to localization where profits are priorities (Taylor, 1992), user localization has the potential to serve as a dimension of UX work that is not preoccupied with financial gain but with user representation to create a more inclusive user experience.

Implications for Technical Communication User Advocates

The type of usability obstacles Urban CTC learners face shed light on the particular dimensions of digital divides at Urban CTC. These are details from the front lines that are not always revealed in reported statistics. Digital disparities are so often conveyed quantitatively, pointing to divisions in ICT use commonly based on income, race, or gender. User localization research can help to create a more complete picture of the people and experiences behind the statistics. While statistics are important for identifying the pervasiveness of digital inequalities, context provided through user localization approaches to UX design helps us better understand why they persist.

This study offers UX and technical communication user advocates a look into local cultural practices at an Urban CTC instead of a common usability setting. Based on learner and tutor interactions in this context, it is clear that inexperienced users need additional contextual information about using ICTs as well as physical practice interacting with ICT hardware. To help learners with navigating the hardware and visual nuances of ICTs, which are often not intuitive, tutors can provide visual and audible representations and serve as visual cue experts to raise learners’ awareness to subtle nuances across interfaces. Without such knowledge, inexperienced users may be unable to use ICTs, making job applications, Google searches, tax documents, civic engagement, email, and even virtual medical care inaccessible, even if the hardware and Internet connection are accessible. In order to cultivate culturally sensitive methods, scholars and practitioners should seek settings and users with less privileged ICT access and take a user localization approach to develop more empathic, empowering, and culturally meaningful methods of communication.

One of the limitations to this project is that of the sample, which is somewhat limited in size and is not representative of all inexperienced ICT users. While this research provides unique insight into a particular setting, more situated research like this is needed to account for the various experiences of other users working to develop their digital literacies. Examining other public sites like Urban CTC as well as private sites that do similar work would provide useful opportunities to compare user experiences. Additionally, the current research could be extended by engaging rural users who may lack reliable high-speed Internet or who would be more distant from ICT training courses. Another fruitful avenue of research might involve learning from users who access the Internet from different devices. Learning more about how these users navigate the Internet and carry out professional and technical communication work would provide useful insight into how instructional tutorials can be better tailored to bridge digital divides.


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About the Author

Rachel Tofteland-Trampe is a PhD candidate studying Rhetoric and Scientific and Technical Communication in the Department of Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her research centers on the intersections of technical communication, rhetoric, and digital literacies, focusing on how texts and communication practices are used within technical communication contexts in community settings. She is available at rtoftela@umn.edu.

Manuscript received 15 August 2016, revised 1 February 2017; accepted 14 February 2017.