65.3, August 2018

Using Interface Rhetoric to Understand Audience Agency in Natural History Apps

By Sonia H. Stephens


Purpose: A wide array of apps is increasingly being developed to provide information about natural history and science for users of mobile devices. This article discusses how a better understanding of audiences’ agency as they use natural history apps—i.e., their ability to take meaningful action—can help technical communicators develop more effective products.

Method: I use interface rhetoric to examine key considerations of audience agency for natural history apps, focusing on five bird identification guide apps, part of a technical genre associated with historically established—though evolving—use practices. I analyze and discuss how the rhetorical choices of developers may empower audiences to understand nature or frame their interactions with nature in certain ways.

Results: I identify three overlapping ways these apps function as interfaces for users: 1) to frame their audience’s experience of and relations to a body of natural history knowledge, 2) to model the conventions and practices of the birding community, and 3) to frame their audience’s understanding of the natural world as a whole.

Conclusion: Approaching natural history guide app design with an awareness of the diverse ways in which these texts function as interfaces can help technical communicators facilitate different types of audience agency during the apps’ ultimate situated use.

Keywords: usability, interface rhetoric, audience agency, context of use

Practitioner’s Takeaway:

  • Presents an approach for understanding audience agency in mobile app design using rhetorical theory
  • Discusses a case study of audience agency in a document genre with a specific use context
  • Describes three different interface functions of a specific category of mobile app, with illustrative examples from five apps


Digital natural history apps provide scientific information about the natural world to audiences with a wide range of technical knowledge about and interest in nature, from identifying fungi to locating the moons of Jupiter. One major category of natural history apps is the bird identification guide, a remediation or re-representation in digital form of the traditional paper-bound book genre that is strongly associated with birdwatching or “birding.” Bird identification guides present technical information that is used in a very specific context—typically, in the outdoors while simultaneously juggling other tools like binoculars—as well as either before or after field excursions. Therefore, identification guides’ audiences access information in a variety of ways under variable physical conditions. Schaffner (2009) offers a stream-of-consciousness perspective on how a birder might use a guide to look for a specific picture of a bird that they have spotted and then confirm that the image on the page matches their sighting through binoculars: “Page ahead, now back. Too far—use the index. Binoculars up, focus—look, look—return to the guide” (p. 95). Material size and weight considerations can constrain the amount of information that can be included in these print-based guides.

Both print-based guides and electronic apps encourage birders to make meaning from their encounters with birds. Their design elements—including organizational logic, visuals and text, and interactive and multimedia features (at least in the case of apps)—have both persuasive and normative functions. By extension, bird guides frame readers’ experience of the natural world and enroll them into the conscious and unconscious practices and norms of the birding community (Schaffner, 2011).

The technical communication field has a long-standing interest in designing information for audiences (e.g., Mirel, 1998; Carliner, 2000), particularly for mobile devices (e.g., Swarts, 2007; Farman, 2011). Calls have also been made for a more extensive rhetorical understanding of digital texts (Warnick, 2005). One specific concern is how visual and interactive technologies affect audience agency (Graham, 2009; Rawlins & Wilson, 2014) or audiences’ ability to take meaningful action either while using a technology or later, for example, when making decisions as a result of their earlier interaction. In this project, I propose that bird guide apps can help us understand audience agency. These apps can facilitate audiences’ real-world opportunities to exercise agency in several different possible ways: in terms of their ability to identify birds, participate with a community of like-minded birders, and understand more about the ecological interactions of the birds they observe. This paper uses interface rhetoric—defined as an examination of the values and ideology that are embedded in interface design (Neill, 2013) —to illustrate how app designers might think about these different aspects of audience agency that are important during use. I argue that approaching natural history guide apps with an awareness of the diverse ways in which these texts function as interfaces can help technical communicators facilitate different types of audience agency. I conclude with suggestions for further research on application development that arise from this exploratory study.

How Birders Use Bird Identification Guides

Birding centers on the observation and identification of birds, an activity that has long been assisted by bird identification field guides that combine visual and verbal descriptions to aid the reader in identifying the birds that they observe (Schaffner, 2011). Traditional guides are portable books of a size, weight, and sturdiness that allow birders to take them hiking or boating. Birders selecting a guidebook must often balance physical size with comprehensiveness of information (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2009). Therefore, bird guides have always been a mobile genre, unlike some other types of mobile documents examined by researchers (Swarts, 2007). Today, both “born digital” and “converted from print” bird identification apps are being produced. Audiences may use bird guides in different ways, as some birders emphasize bird conservation, others compete to add to their “life lists,” and others simply enjoy watching bird behavior.

Two rhetorical functions of traditional book-based bird identification guides are to introduce birders to the norms of the broader birding community and to configure what birders look and listen for when they interact with the natural world. Most contemporary book-based identification guides share several common features that facilitate their use for quick reference in mobile situations. These include a standardized overall taxonomic arrangement of species descriptions, the parallel alignment of text and images that describe each species, identification of key field marks on bird images that help users differentiate between similar species, multiple indices to facilitate searching by different features, and maps of species ranges that help audiences narrow down which birds are likely to be found in a given location.

One classic example, The Peterson Guide to Birds (2010), is a long-standing guide that has gone through multiple editions since its first publication in 1934 but still maintains many features characteristic of the genre; Lund (2015) describes it as the book that “invented the modern field guide.” The Peterson Guide presents painted representations of bird species in taxonomic order, in isolation from both nature and human culture. Arrows annotate key features that are helpful in identification, and conservation is discussed in the text as a general topic while specific conservation measures are not discussed (Schaffner, 2009). A few printed guides—particularly those produced for beginning birders—differ by using photos that show birds in their natural habitat or arranging according to color or habitat, though these are less common. Schaffner (2011) argues that, overall, these texts train birders to approach observing birds as a problem of classification while erasing the connections between birds, their ecosystems, and human effects on both.

Most bird identification guides use either photographs, or paintings or drawings of birds. This choice has both aesthetic and communicative implications. Although both photos and drawings are selected to best represent the appearance of a species, a photographic representation shows a specific bird of a certain age with a particular seasonal plumage, under unique lighting conditions (Pauwels, 2006). By contrast, a drawing or painting might allow the illustrator to emphasize key characteristics that may aid in comparison. In many cases, multiple images of each species might be included, as appearance might vary by sex, age, and subspecies, as shown in a screenshot from the Sibley Birds of North America app (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Screenshot from Sibley Birds of North America app (Sibley, 2015) showing the overall layout of the app interface, interactive features, and paintings of adult and juvenile birds with key markings pointed out. Used by permission of MyDigitalEarth.

As in many technical genres, bird identification guides have changed over time. Early texts included often anthropomorphized and moralistic narratives about each species with minimal illustrations, whereas contemporary texts are image-heavy and focus on identification and scientific classification (Schaffner, 2011). This shift parallels one in the professionalization of ornithological discourse, from natural history narrative to an experimental science orientation (Battalio, 1998). Along with this shift in content and arrangement, the potential uses of bird guides and their affordances for audience agency have changed. For example, birders today are given tools for understanding what species a given bird belongs to rather than whether a given bird might have “unsavory” personality traits (e.g., eating carrion). Bird guide apps provide audiences augmented and additional tools for identifying birds, understanding birds’ place in ecosystems, and interacting with other birders. These diverse functions make interface rhetoric particularly applicable to understanding how bird guide apps affect audience agency.

Table 1. Technical and feature information about apps examined for this project

Title Release date Availability Major features Cost
Bird song ID USA (v 8.05) 2015 iOS/ Android
  • Limited list of birds; large geographic range
  • Record sounds; compare species’ sounds
iBird Hawaii & Palau Guide to Birds (v 9.1) 2015 iOS
  • Large list of birds; limited geographic range
  • Search by physical features; social forum; upload/share photos; turn field mark annotations on/off; sounds; range maps
Audubon Bird Guide: North America (v 3.9) 2016 iOS/ Android
  • Large list of birds; large geographic range
  • Search by location and physical features; social forum; limited sounds; range maps
Sibley Birds of North America (v 1.9) 2015 iOS/ Android
  • Large list of birds; large geographic range
  • Search by location and physical features; compare selected species’ pictures; sounds; range maps
The Warbler Guide (v 1.0.1) 2015 iOS/ Android
  • Limited list of birds (single group); large geographic range
  • Search by location, physical features, and season; view birds from different angles; compare selected species’ pictures; sounds; range maps

Representative Bird Identification Apps

In order to illustrate the features of bird identification apps, I selected five of the top downloaded bird apps from the iTunes app store in 2016 and viewed them on an iPad. Table 1 provides technical and feature information about the apps discussed in this project at the time of viewing, though features and cost have changed for several as of the writing of this paper. Each of the apps shared four common features, though the level of detail varied among them: 1) verbal descriptions and behavioral information about each species, 2) illustrations of each species, 3) the ability to browse and search by location, and 4) recorded sounds. The first two features (verbal information and illustrations), along with maps of species’ ranges and phonetic descriptions of birds’ calls (e.g., the Red-throated loon’s, Gavia stellata, “Drawn-out, gull-like wailing or shrieking, aarOOoa, aarOOoa” [Sibley, 2015]), are also typically found in book-based field guides.

Apps were selected to exemplify the available range of features in this genre of text, and therefore, other apps that did not have additional or novel features, or which may have lacked some of the features discussed here, were not included in this sample. The purposive sample studied includes apps that 1) use photos, paintings, and/or computer-generated images; 2) focus on North America or smaller geographic ranges (specifically, Hawaii and Palau); 3) include either all birds in a region or a smaller number of species; and 4) include a range of interactive features including sounds, rotatable images, and social forums. With the exception of the interactive features, these characteristics are discussed in birding forums as points of consideration when selecting a field guide. For example, a guide with a narrow range of species might include more detailed information about a specific group (Lund, 2015), and paintings may be preferred over photos by more experienced birders (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2009).

Interface Rhetoric and Bird Identification Apps

Although an interface can be understood as something that frames a user’s interaction with information, thinking about the rhetoric of the interface requires attention to the user and the conditions of use, the information that is being accessed, and how the interface affords and constrains access of the user to the information. Broadly speaking, rhetorical design describes how objects incorporate arguments about how we should behave (Buchanan, 2001). The rhetorical building blocks of screen design include the selection and arrangement of facts, images, and arguments; provision of options for searching for data and making choices about what to see next; and feedback response when the user provides input. The rhetorical effects of interface design can be direct, such as the loss of credibility engendered by a poorly designed menu system, or indirect, such as providing a space in which existing power relations are reinforced (Selfe & Selfe, 1994).

One key technique of arrangement in both bird identification guides and apps is image-text parallelism, which organizes content as a series of images of each species paired with text that describes that species. Image-text parallelism is an important persuasive technique in scientific discourse more broadly (Fahnestock, 2003). Both text and images work together to represent each species. The visuals are used in different ways, including searching and matching birds that have been observed in the field to the images and studying the guide while not in the field. However, in the field, images may have primary importance to searching birders while the text is used secondarily to confirm an initial tentative identification, whereas when birders are studying the book at their leisure neither text nor images may dominate the other.

Digital interfaces differ from the traditional book-as-interface in that they afford more complex types of interactivity, thus making rhetorical design more complex and potentially giving the user a greater sense of engagement and agency (Carnegie, 2009). Therefore, our understanding of the interface needs to take into account the human agent who is using it and the conditions under which the agent does the interacting. Drucker (2011) contests the definition of an interface as something that simply facilitates the interaction of a disembodied user with information. Instead of the interface being like a window that a user looks through at the data, Drucker proposes that the interface is a dynamic space within which an embodied subject acts and thinks as the subject interacts with the data. As embodied subjects, we think with interfaces as we physically interact with them (Liu et al., 2007). With mobile technologies in particular, the device itself may seem to disappear, making the information seem present in embodied form (Farman, 2011). Interfaces help us make queries and access information but also shape the types of queries that we can form, the connections that we can make, and our interpretation of our experiences. For example, several bird guide apps have features that make it easy to search for birds of a specific color. In contrast, no apps that were reviewed for this manuscript helped users search by behavioral features, such as regular tail wagging or flying in a loop and returning to the same perch (common behaviors of the Eastern phoebe [Sayornis phoebe]). For a novice birder using an app, this might reinforce the importance of plumage characteristics for identifying a phoebe, whereas a more experienced birder would likely use a more holistic approach to identification that emphasizes the bird’s behavior. In other words, an interface is a dynamic space that provides affordances for both interacting with information and shaping how we make meaning from that information in the world. Stanfill (2014) describes this effect as “how technically possible uses become more or less normative through productive constraint” (p. 1062; emphasis added).

The dynamic space of interaction and cognition that interfaces provide their audiences is constructed by a variety of features, including functional, cognitive, and sensory affordances (Stanfill, 2014) and different types of interactivity: multi-directional information flow, manipulability, and presence—the feeling that the user is interacting socially or spatially with the computer (Carnegie, 2009). For bird identification apps, these features allow the app to function as an interface in three distinct ways: between the birder and the body of natural history knowledge that is referenced by the guide, between the individual birder and a broader birding community, and to help configure the birder’s experience of being in the natural world. These three interface functions create a complex situation for audience agency, because audiences may approach the app—and the information that it conveys—in different ways. Thus, audiences may experience diverse opportunities for agency as the app helps them interface with distinctly different types of information.

Bird Identification Guides And Audience Agency

Audience agency has been discussed by a number of technical communication researchers as it relates to information presented using interactive and digital technologies (e.g., Koerber, 2006; Herndl & Licona, 2007; Miller, 2007; Graham, 2009; Cooper, 2011; Rawlins & Wilson, 2014). For example, Rawlins and Wilson (2014) discuss interactive data visualizations as spaces of agency that are co-created by the visualization’s designer and audience. In their discussion, the designer initially defines the space of agency, and the individual users may claim more or less agency as they interact with the visualization and make choices about the degree to which they customize their experience. Rawlins and Wilson therefore focus on user agency as a phenomenon that occurs during interaction itself.

In contrast to Rawlins and Wilson, Graham (2009) describes agency as the capacity to create change over time and discusses the importance of examining agency as a process before, during, and after action occurs. In this paper, I include both taking actions in one’s surroundings and making cognitive changes in response to one’s perceptions of one’s surroundings to involve agency, following the enactive agency model described by Cooper (2011). Thus, users may take agential actions both during and after interacting with a bird guide app. Cooper describes enactive agency as “the process through which organisms create meanings through acting into the world and changing their structure in response to the perceived consequences of their actions” (p. 426). Audience agency that is facilitated and shaped by bird identification guides might encompass a range of events that includes developing a more complex understanding of how to identify a species’ age based on its plumage, choosing a birding location based upon which species are likely to be present, and adopting accepted practices when birding (such as mimicking songs to attract birds only when this will not disturb them).

Three Interface Functions of Bird Identification Apps

Bird identification apps can serve as interfaces in different ways, depending on which of the overlapping interface functions—natural history knowledge, the birding community, or the broader natural world—audiences choose to prioritize as they interact with them. Following Rawlins and Wilson (2014), each of these potential interface functions creates a different space in which audiences may exercise agency as they interact with the app. Moreover, audiences experience agency in a real-world setting, such as when they modify their behavior or cognitive processes as a result of earlier interaction with the app. Understanding the different types of audience agency that may arise with regards to bird guide apps therefore requires us to conceptualize the different agency spaces that audiences may experience. In the remainder of this paper, I describe how app design can frame the audience’s experience of agency differently as they experience three interface functions.

Bird Identification Apps as an Interface with Natural History Knowledge

First, and perhaps most self-evidently, bird identification apps provide an interface between the birder and the body of natural history knowledge that the app references. In traditional book-based guides, this knowledge consists of visual representations and text descriptions of birds and their behavior, maps of species’ ranges, and sometimes diagrams of their songs (Schaffner, 2011). Stanfill (2014) breaks down the affordances of interfaces into three categories, each of which contribute to the user’s experience: functional affordances, which determine what the user can do with it an interface; cognitive affordances, which are aspects of an interface that relate to processing information, naming, and making meaning; and sensory affordances—design and layout choices, such as typeface, animation, overall visibility, or placement on a page.

Electronic bird identification apps take advantage of expanded digital storage and multimedia to provide audiences with more information, including information about bird habitat, behavior, and vocal recordings. This provides a broader base of natural history knowledge from which the user can draw when learning about birds and, in particular, making decisions about identification. One key cognitive affordance of identification guides is that they provide multiple visual comparisons to help the audience differentiate between similar species. The Warbler Guide app (2015), a specialized guide to a single group of small songbirds, offers users the ability to make comparisons between many species from the side, top, front, and bottom (Figure 2), as well as the ability to compare and rotate 3D computer models of species (Figure 3). This expanded sensory affordance for selecting and manipulating visuals may be helpful to audiences because many of these species look similar.

Figure 2. Screenshot from The Warbler Guide (Stephenson & Whittle, 2015) comparing the undersides of eight warblers, who are often observed from below. Used by permission of Princeton University Press.
Figure 3. Screenshot from The Warbler Guide (Stephenson & Whittle, 2015) showing 3-D rotatable models of two warbler species for comparison. Used by permission of Princeton University Press.

The manipulability of 3D models of birds; as well as actions that include swiping, clicking, and using the search function; comprise one of the three types of interactivity that interfaces afford that are described by Carnegie (2009). Traditional book-based identification guides also have manipulability; books can be flipped through, written in, or tossed into a backpack. Electronic bird guides differ in that they afford multi-directional information flow and presence, as well as different types of manipulability. In iBird Hawaii and Palau (Mitch Waite Group, 2015), for example, illustration annotations can be turned on or off as birders encounter new species or become more confident in their identification skills (Figure 4). These types of affordances give audiences greater agential opportunities to customize their encounters with information while using the app. Moreover, they may facilitate different ways of learning about species that give audiences more agency when constructing their cognitive models after using the app.

A final example of how bird guide apps affect the audience’s experience of natural history knowledge is via the overall organization of information. Species are organized taxonomically in most book-based guides, so the reader either has to learn taxonomic organization, flip through the book, or look up a name in an index in order to find a particular species. While several bird guide apps retain this organizational logic, they let the user reorganize the order of species, as by overall shape (National Audubon Society, 2016), color (Stephenson & Whittle, 2015), or alphabetical order (e.g., Mitch Waite Group, 2015; Sibley, 2015). Although these features may help birders search for or identify a particular species, a larger cognitive implication is that novice birders may learn less about avian evolutionary relationships than in a print identification guide with less manipulability. Thus, novel app features that give users many choices about how to arrange information may inhibit them from forming an expert taxonomy-based understanding of avian natural history.

Figure 4. Screenshot from iBird Hawaii and Palau (Mitch Waite Group, 2015) showing the overall interface with interactive features, and an annotated painting of the Wandering tattler or ‘Ulili (Tringa incana). Used by permission of iBird.
Figure 5. Screenshot from Audubon bird guide: North America (National Audubon Society, 2016) showing the features of the app’s starting screen. Used by permission of National Audubon Society.

Bird Identification Apps as an Interface with the Birding Community

The second interface function of bird identification apps that I will discuss is that they connect individual birders to the broader birding community. In traditional book-based birding guides, the connection to community may be limited to an introductory discussion of proper behavior in the field; for example, enjoying birds while minimizing disturbance to them by only rarely mimicking their calls so as to draw them closer. Other community practices are communicated in more subtle ways. For example, some bird guides mention the practice of visiting landfills to search for gulls while normalizing the un-naturalness of large numbers of gulls picking through trash for food (Schaffner, 2011). Additionally, the traditional taxonomic organization of bird guides crosses language boundaries and can contribute to cross-cultural communication agency. In a personal anecdote, once while birding in Japan, I met a Japanese birder and was able to communicate with him about birds using the taxonomic arrangement and Latin species names in my guidebook, even though neither of us could speak the other’s language. If I had been using an electronic guide ordered in alphabetical order by English common name—a feature that may be used more frequently by inexperienced birders—our communication might have been encumbered by first rearranging the material, a process that might take several steps.

Whereas book-based bird identification guides afford some connection between audiences and the norms and practices of the birding community, several apps help birders connect directly with one another via networked interactive features. This can be particularly evident in apps that are designed for beginning birders, such as the Audubon Bird Guide (National Audubon Society, 2016). This app’s start screen gives birders the opportunity to search for recent sightings, report their observations, connect to a chat forum where they can ask questions, or donate to Audubon (a conservation organization), as well as look up information about birds (Figure 5). Several of these affordances might particularly give agency to beginning birders who are interested in connecting with other birders while also leading to specific expectations or community norms of sharing their observations with others or donating to bird conservation organizations.

Other interactive and networked features afford the app audience opportunities for agency by contributing to the birding community’s knowledge. For example, although not all birders prioritize keeping a list of species they have seen, list-keeping, searching for rare species, and sharing observations with others are common practices (Sullivan et al., 2009). Various apps let birders record their observations in real time and share them either via the app or a larger online database. Because list information is geolocated, sharing this information with other birders allows app users to both gain recognition for finding a certain species and assist other birders in also locating that species. In iBird Hawaii and Palau (Mitch Waite Group, 2015), users can take photos and upload them to a photo sharing service, as well as access other people’s photos of a species. This feature facilitates connection to the birding community by validating individual observations and helping develop a user-generated body of observational knowledge. Moreover, these features make it easier for amateur birders to contribute to professional ornithology as “citizen scientists,” a practice that has historically been a part of birding (Battalio, 1998).

Bird Identification Apps as an Interface with the Natural World

A third interface function of bird identification apps is that they help birders configure their experience of being in the natural world. They do this in several ways. First, bird identification guides and apps focus on identification. While using guides, birders learn that a primary purpose of observing birds is to identify them, rather than—for example—watching the behavior of a particular bird over time (Schaffner, 2011). Bird identification apps provide audiences with many tools that promote a scientific orientation to observing birds that involves classification and list-keeping, both as individuals and in concert with the broader birding community. Schaffner (2009, 2011) argues that this orientation promotes the viewing of birds in isolation from the rest of the environment and obscures the anthropogenic threats that many species face.

One way in which bird identification apps may afford birders increased agency in understanding the natural world and developing a more holistic orientation to the natural world is that they offer sensory affordances beyond the visual. Although traditional book-based bird guides focus on visual means of identification, sometimes effectively reducing a bird to the color of a single patch of feathers, many apps include the ability to play songs and calls. For example, The Bird Song ID app (Isoperla, 2015) uses a sound archive as the primary tool for identification, with images as a secondary tool and text as tertiary (Figure 6). This app also lets users record sounds and then try to match them to its archive for identification, though this feature is limited by the capabilities of the birder’s electronic device. By developing an awareness of vocalizations, birders can ascertain something about a bird’s behavior and emotional state. For example, an app’s sound recordings might include the sounds of baby birds begging food from their parents or an alarm call (e.g., as in Sibley, 2015; Figure 1).

Figure 6. Screenshot from Bird song ID USA (Isoperla, 2015) showing the interactive features including the ability to compare photos, and calls of similar species and record calls. Used by permission of Sunbird Images.

The increased storage capacity of digital media in comparison to print affords birders other potential ways to understand birds aside from simple identification. For example, one of the main reasons that birders cite for selecting a particular guide is whether it uses photos (which show birds under natural lighting conditions) or paintings (which show idealized birds that capture all of the key identification marks; Lund, 2015). The inclusion of both paintings and photographs might help birders connect idealized representations with what they see under variable viewing conditions. Bird identification apps may include multiple images of birds that show diverse behaviors or illustrate birds interacting with their environments in ways that most book-based field guides do not (Schaffner, 2009), and, thus, not isolate birds from the natural world for the sole purpose of identification. Apps also offer more space to provide information about species that situates them in the natural world, such as their life histories, migration patterns, or whether they have threatened or endangered status, as in iBird Hawaii and Palau (Mitch Waite Group, 2015). By providing this information, an app gives its audience tools to articulate, for example, why large congregations of gulls may be found at a landfill because their natural food sources have been depleted by human activities.

Finally, one of the modes of interactivity that bird identification guides provide is presence, or the feeling that the user is interacting socially or spatially with the interface (Carnegie, 2009). In both book-based and electronic ID guides, the text is intended to be taken into the field and become an integral part of the birding experience, as well as potentially being read before or after birding. Thus, the guide has presence as part of the embodied experience of birding. As mentioned previously, the features that apps afford for building presence include the ability to input one’s own information into a database and the ability to interact with other birders through the application. These features have two potential effects related to agency. First, social features may help novice birders ask questions in a sympathetic forum, decreasing their anxiety about participating in the birding community. Second, these features also position the audience as agents who are producers of knowledge about birds and the natural world rather than simply consumers.

Conclusion: Audience Agency and Application Design

As the example of bird identification apps illustrates, audience agency in mobile applications occurs in a complex setting in which different spaces of potential agency overlap. Rather than the audience encountering a single space of agency while using the app (Rawlins & Wilson, 2014), I argue that the different ways in which the app functions as an interface creates multiple potential spaces of agency during use. These spaces may overlap. For example, I have described how taxonomic organization of information may afford opportunities to develop a more nuanced understanding of avian evolution as well as communicate about birds with speakers of other languages. Audiences may also experience real-world agency during or after using bird identification apps in a real-world setting. This conception of agency emphasizes the importance of rhetoric in understanding audiences’ experience of the interface (Warnick, 2005) and suggests several considerations that may be of interest to application designers in general.

First, the example of bird identification apps illustrates that examining the different ways by which an application may rhetorically function as an interface can help technical communicators expand our understanding of their potential roles in audience agency. As suggested here, a single app can function as more than one type of interface, though there may be overlap between these different interface functions. Specifically, bird guide apps can mediate the birder’s interactions with scientific information, with the birding community, and with the broader natural world. This example demonstrates the complexity of uses to which natural history apps are put and suggests that designers might obtain insights about the multiple dimensions of audience agency that apps facilitate by examining these uses. Designers of other types of apps might consider how other applications might function as interfaces in different ways beyond the topic at hand, broader ecological implications, and social interaction. For example, a botany app might provide an interface to traditional uses for plants, though there might be legal considerations with regards to edible or medicinal uses. Another consideration for designers is what specific features and affordances create the interface functions of any one particular app and to what extent they overlap. Although most apps focused on identification would likely share linked text and visuals, a geology app would provide information on chemical testing of rocks rather than sound files. Thus, features and affordances should be customized to help audiences better understand the app’s subject matter.

Second, natural history apps are an example of a mobile genre that has always been mobile, with the book-based field guide as their antecedent. As such, this category of document has important differences from other types of documents that have been examined by technical communication researchers, such as tools for practicing medicine that are making the transition to mobile devices (Swarts, 2007). For designers of similar types of mobile applications, an understanding of the history of a particular genre might yield important information. For example, specific types of historical affordances and features mark bird identification apps as distinct from other applications, such as modular construction or multiple options for searching. By comparison, astronomy apps have different antecedents—charts and tables that emphasize the position of stars and planets at specific times. The expectations of audiences who are familiar with the conventions of book-based field guides may differ from those of audiences using apps whose conventions arose from documents originally created for non-mobile media.

Third, the example of bird identification apps points to the importance of text and visuals, as well as sound, for contributing to audience agency as it pertains to understanding birds and their behavior. Text and visuals, in particular, contribute both cognitive and sensory affordances with aesthetic and interpretive implications, such as the selection of photos or paintings to visually represent species. As mentioned previously, apps might include both types of image in order to give audiences the ability to move between both idealized and specific representations. For apps focused on other aspects of natural history, the relationship between text, visuals, and sound—as well as other possible multimedia features—might differ depending on the subject matter. For example, an app focused on identifying frogs might emphasize sound more than images, as it is easier to hear than see these animals.

Finally, this exploratory study leads to questions about how users actually experience agency when using bird identification apps, and whether and how different audiences experience apps in different ways. A primary design consideration is how we can identify and incorporate the interactive features that might give audiences types of agency that are useful for them. For example, novice birders may find value in connecting to a supportive community of birders who will answer their questions while expert birders may find more value in sharing their observations and contributing to building natural history knowledge. Thus, different audiences might find value in different interface functions of bird identification apps, and a well-designed app for novice birders would not simply be a “content-light” version of a more expensive app designed for experienced birders.

The issue of audiences’ lived experiences of agency raises several questions that would best be answered by applied study of natural history apps. For example, are there specific types of real-world agency that all audiences find valuable? Might different audiences have disparate levels of interest in the interface functions of a particular application, and, if so, how can we design applications to better serve those audiences’ interests? How do audiences actually perceive the interface functions and opportunities for exercising agency that an app provides? Finally, how do audience perceptions about app features and agency interact with price and reputation to guide choices about purchasing?

As when interacting with data in other types of rhetorical spaces (e.g., Rawlins & Wilson, 2014), not all users are likely to take advantage of the full suite of opportunities for agency that are afforded by a particular natural history app. In comparison to book-based field guides, apps can provide their audiences with enhanced access to information in different media formats, open up space for social sharing and interaction, and provide opportunities to contribute to “citizen science.” Looking at the diverse interface functions of natural history apps can suggest the types of audience agency that developers might facilitate when building such tools.


I would like to thank Lisa Meloncon for her thoughtful feedback on an early version of this article as well as the journal editor and reviewers for their constructive comments.


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About the Author

Sonia H. Stephens is an assistant professor in the University of Central Florida’s Department of English and Texts and Technology Program. Her research interests include examining how visual and interactive technologies affect individuals’ understanding of science and nature, developing visual products for communicating about environmental risks, and user-centered design. She can be contacted at sonia.stephens@ucf.edu.

Manuscript received 3 July 2017, revised 3 October 2017; accepted 9 November 2017.