69.1 February 2022

Promoting Social Justice Through Usability in Technical Communication: An Integrative Literature Review

doi: https://doi.org/10.55177/tc584938

By Keshab Raj Acharya


Purpose: Recently, interest in usability has grown in the technical communication (TC) field, but we lack a current cohesive literature review that reflects this new growth. This article provides an integrative literature review on usability, its goals, and approaches to accomplish those goals in relation to TC’s commitment to social justice and empowerment.

Methods: I conducted an integrative literature review on usability to synthesize and characterize TC’s growing commitment to social justice and empowerment. I searched scholarly publications and trade literature that included books and book chapters on usability. Adopting grounded theory and content analysis as research techniques to systematically evaluate data corpus, I read and classified selected publications to approach the research questions and iteratively analyzed the data to identify themes within each research question.

Results: Surveying the definitions and descriptions of usability in the literature corpus shows that there is no consensus definition of usability. Findings suggest that the goal of usability can be classified as: a) pragmatic or functional goals, b) user experience goals, and c) sociocultural goals. Given the recent cultural and social justice turns in TC, my findings reveal a number of social justice-oriented design approaches for usability.

Conclusions: Usability should not be viewed solely as a means of achieving pragmatic and/or user experience goals. Practitioners also need to consider usability from sociocultural orientations to accomplish its sociocultural goals. From interconnected global perspectives, the review implies the need for adopting more viable and culturally sustaining design approaches for successfully accommodating cultural differences and complexities for promoting social justice and user empowerment.

KEYWORDS: usability, integrative literature review, localization, social justice, user empowerment, inclusion, technical communication

Practitioner’s Takeaway

  • Provides an overview of usability, its goals, and the approaches for accomplishing those goals;
  • Offers broader perspectives on usability in relation to designing technical products, systems, or tools that satisfy the demands and contingencies of culturally diverse users, including underprivileged, underserved, and marginalized user groups;
  • Offers insights on approaching usability from social justice perspectives to create meaningful and empowering technical products by recognizing the shift from pragmatic usability to sociocultural orientations of usability


Usability is a central concern in technical communication (TC) when designing products, systems, or tools—such as application interfaces, websites, software, online help systems, and print or online documentation—from users’ perspectives (Alexander, 2013; Johnson, 1998; Redish, 2010; Salvo, 2001; Scott, 2008). Usability research demonstrates why designers should heed to generate tools that are easy to use and understand for the intended users (Barnum, 2002; Dumas & Redish, 1993; Gould & Lewis, 1985). Recognizing the need for and importance of creating such tools from users’ viewpoint, interest in usability research and practice in differing cultural contexts has also been growing recently in the TC field (see, for example, Agboka, 2014; Cardinal, Gonzales, & Rose, 2020; Dorpenyo, 2020; Gonzales & Zantjer, 2015; Gu & Yu, 2016; Saru & Wojahn, 2020; Sun, 2020). In fact, usability has many natural ties to TC and both have a long, intertwined history since the 1970s through today (Breuch, Zachry, & Spinuzzi, 2001; Redish, 2010; Redish & Barnum, 2011).

Despite the long inherent connections between usability and TC, our field lacks an integrative literature review to better understand usability in relation to the field’s recent cultural and social justice turns. Such a lack draws attention to the need for investigating “how communication, broadly defined, can amplify the agency of oppressed people—those who are materially, socially, politically, and/or economically under-resourced” (Jones & Walton, 2018, p. 242). To be clear, an integrative literature review works to assemble “representative literature on a topic in an integrated way such that new frameworks and perspectives on the topic are generated” (Torraco, 2016, p. 356). The lack of synthesis in research makes it difficult to review emerging topics, ideas, or concepts that generate new knowledge and a growing body of literature about the topic reviewed (Torraco, 2016). Because such review is performed to “make a significant, value-added contribution to new thinking in the field” (Torraco, 2005, p. 358), this study aims to accomplish this by holistically understanding:

  • usability and its goals in TC research and scholarship;
  • design approaches to promote social justice and user empowerment; and
  • the extent to which usability research in the TC field has been conducted in international contexts.

More specifically, this integrative literature review sought to address the following two research questions:

RQ1: How is usability defined, and what are its goals?

RQ2: What design approaches have been proposed to promote social justice and user empowerment?

To address these questions, I undertook an integrative literature review of usability in both peer-reviewed TC journal articles and trade literature that included books and book chapters on usability over the past 40 years. As discussed in detail later, I compiled a data set consisting of 27 books, 14 book chapters, and 82 journal articles over a span of 40 years (1980–2020). Drawing upon grounded theory (Charmaz, 2014; Corbin & Strauss, 2015) and content analysis as research techniques (Huckin, 2004; Krippendorff, 2019), I analyzed the representative data set for emergent and recurring themes by unitizing (segmenting the text for analysis), sampling (selecting an appropriate collection of texts for analysis), and validating (using the consistent coding scheme) the data corpus (Boettger & Palmer, 2010).

In what follows, I first provide a brief note on how the emergence, expansion, and current state of usability development influenced my research. I then discuss my research method followed by the results as answers to my research questions. Finally, I highlight the implications of the study and conclude by providing suggestions for further research.

A Brief Note on the Emergence and Evolution of Usability

Along with the development of computer technology in the early 1980s, the usability profession largely started by raising usability issues related to user interfaces (Johnson, 1998; Redish, 2010; Redish & Barnum, 2011). When Apple introduced the Macintosh in 1984, issues concerning computer interfaces prevailed in usability engineering as novice users struggled to perform desired tasks due to a fundamental mismatch between the design of a technology and users’ expectations and capabilities (Sedgwick, 1993). To address such concerns, many usability specialists, especially from the engineering field, advocated for user research to improve usability (Barnum, 2002; Nielsen, 1993). In designing interfaces from users’ perspective, scholars argued for integrating the think-aloud method into the design process to ask users to verbalize their thoughts while interacting with the system (Boren & Ramey, 2000; Ericsson & Simon, 1980; Hughes, 1999; Mack, Lewis, & Carroll, 1983; Whiteside, Bennett, & Holtzblatt, 1988).

Decades of discussions in TC as a field have also consistently emphasized the need for designing technical products through the lens of usability (Carroll, 1990; Johnson, 1994; Schneider, 2005; Schriver, 1993; Spinuzzi, 2003; Sullivan, 1989); thus, the relevance of usability to technical communication had inherent support. Though usability has long been advocated for creating usable products in the context of use (St.Amant, 2015, 2017a; Sun, 2012; Zachry & Spyridakis, 2016), recent usability research and practices in TC move toward approaching usability for social justice and user empowerment (Acharya, 2018; Dorpenyo, 2020; Light & Luckin, 2008; Walton, 2016). This integrative review was initiated by acknowledging this new direction in usability for promoting social justice and user empowerment (i.e., enabling users of a product, including underserved and underprivileged user groups, to accomplish their intended goals with all possibilities and improve their quality of life).


For this study, I collected data from both scholarly publications and trade literature to gain a full picture of usability and its implications for TC work. Data sources could be expanded to a wide range of publications on usability, including gray literature (i.e., literature published outside of traditional, commercial, or academic publishing and distribution channels). But, I confined my review only to trade literature and five major TC journals because I needed “logical parameters to set boundaries for the study” (Melonçon & St.Amant, 2018). Otherwise, I would still be searching, coding, and analyzing data sets. All sources of literature for inclusion fulfilled the following criteria:

  • published over the last four decades (1980–2020, at the time of this study)
  • focused primarily on usability, usability research, and practice in relation to TC
  • helped shape my research questions

I chose the 1980s as my corpus’s starting point because the decade represents many technical communicators’ significant transition from writing as user advocates to functioning as usability specialists (McGovern, 2005; Redish & Barnum, 2011).

The data search was an iterative process. I conducted several trial runs with the keyword categories, refining and modifying the keywords to gain the best possible results. I used the Boolean special characters * to optimize the keywords and “” to search for exact phrasings, as well as the Boolean terms AND, OR, and NOT to look for overlapping concepts and produce more relevant research. As a result, I used the following list of keywords for each database and search engine: usability* AND technical communication, usability AND usability testing, “usability research,” “user-centered technology,” usability*/in technical comm*, “localized usability,” cross-cultural/design*, “human-centered design OR user experience design.”

In order to capture my research topic broadly and isolate information irrelevant to this study, I compiled the corpus from the following repositories:

  • my university library databases, including IEEE Xplore, ScienceDirect, and ACM Digital Library, as well as the general database
  • Google Scholar, Amazon.com, and Google Books
  • five widely referenced TC journals:
    • Technical Communication
    • Journal of Technical Writing and Communication (JTWC)
    • Journal of Business and Technical Communication (JBTC)
    • IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication (IEEE)
    • Technical Communication Quarterly (TCQ)

I selected these journals based on past research practices exhibited by TC researchers and practitioners, including Boettger and Lam (2013) and Melonçon and St.Amant (2018). As we know, these journals are “the markers of the disciplines’ knowledge creation and perpetuation” (Boettger & Palmer, 2010) and the “core/central sources of scholarship in the [TC] field” (Melonçon & St.Amant, 2018, p. 132).

In addition to the literature found through the broad search of the databases and search engines, I checked sources included in the reference lists of the articles and their original publication venues to validate findings and enrich the analysis. This process also allowed me to “find additional relevant literature by examining references in the literature already obtained” (Torraco, 2016, p. 416).

In scholarly publications, I included only full-length, research-based articles (i.e., no commentaries, book reviews, etc.). This scope produced a data corpus of 129 scholarly publications and 51 trade publications. I evaluated each source iteratively to determine their relevance to usability in TC to further narrow the sample. This left a study size of 82 articles, 27 books, and 14 book chapters based on the above criteria. The analysis and discussion that follows is confined only to these 123 data sources.

Informed by content analysis (Huckin, 2004; Krippendorff, 2019), also a major research methodology in TC (see, for example, Boettger & Palmer, 2010; Brumberger & Lauer, 2015; King & McCarthy, 2018), I evaluated the collected texts for emergent and recurring themes by unitizing (segmenting definitions of relevant units), sampling (selecting samples for analysis), and validating (employing the consistent coding scheme) the representative data corpus. Adopting standard research coding techniques (Coffey & Atkinson, 1996) and grounded theory (Charmaz, 2014; Corbin & Strauss, 2015), I performed initial coding by reviewing each data source to distinguish concepts and categories. In the second phase of coding (i.e., axial coding), I assembled the categories into causal relationships by grouping, sorting, and reducing the number of codes generated from the first cycle of coding (Charmaz, 2014). This process allowed me to see the relationships between concepts and categories developed in the open coding process (Corbin & Strauss, 2015).

To evaluate the corpus from the lens of content analysis, I developed starter codes and piloted them on the data sets to norm my data analysis approach. Then, I conducted pattern coding to pull materials together into more meaningful units to identify key themes, configuration, and explanation (Miles & Huberman, 1994). I coded the data corpus iteratively to maintain the degree of consistency and reduced the clusters to the point of saturation through the process of analysis and reanalysis (Charmaz, 2014). Once themes were derived, I reevaluated their relationships based on my research questions as broad organizational thematic categories.

Just as with other research work, this study has its limitations and strengths. For instance, I did not include publications on usability from sources such as magazines, professional blog postings, podcasts, and slide decks. Because the origin of usability has no single root, the review cannot be regarded as an ultimate synthesis of usability scholarship in TC. Although I do believe that an expanded version of the review might synthesize knowledge on the topic by offering different perspectives, doing so carefully and thoughtfully would be enormously labor intensive and time consuming (Melonçon & St.Amant, 2018). Additionally, other researchers looking at the same corpus might draw different conclusions and implications.


This section presents the results of my review of the usability literature to address each of my research questions.

RQ1: How is usability defined, and what are its goals?

To address this question, I focused on how the term “usability” was defined and discussed by authors in the consulted scholarly publications and trade literature. My findings showed that usability can refer to a process (i.e., a form of evaluation), a characteristic (i.e., the degree to which a product or system is usable), and a professional discipline (i.e., an approach to or study of user research to better understand user needs, expectations, and behaviors). In other words, usability is a multifaceted construct used by different disciplines for different purposes and meanings (Table 1).

The term “usability” is traditionally used to mean how easily and quickly an individual can use a product to perform a desired objective (Barnum, 2002, 2011; Dumas & Redish, 1993; Gould & Lewis, 1985; Nielsen, 1993; Rosenbaum, 1989; Whiteside, Bennett, & Holtzblatt, 1988). As Table 1 displays, usability refers to the degree to which a product can be effectively used by target users to perform intended tasks (Guillemette, 1989; Rosenbaum, 1989). The definition also includes more specific attributes such as efficiency, effectiveness, learnability, accuracy, satisfaction, error recovery, and retention over time (Nielsen, 1993; Quesenbery, 2003; Shneiderman, Plaisant, Cohen, Jacobs, Elmqvist, & Diakopou, 2018). Johnson (1998) examines usability as an iterative process that helps achieve desired goals by means of repeated cycles of testing a product or system. In Mirel’s (2002) view, usability is not related to one specific dynamic feature or attribute but to a comprehensive whole that provides users with a good, positive work experience. According to Haaksma, De Jong, and Karreman (2018), “These days, usability includes not only ease of use, but also factors of efficacy and appreciation” (p. 117).

As rooted in several broad disciplines such as psychology, human factors, and cognitive science, usability is also understood as a discipline that is concerned with the design, evaluation, and implementation of interactive products, systems, or tools. As argued by Spinuzzi (2001), usability relates to the entire activity system in which a product is used—the system involving society, culture, history, and interpretation. Broadly speaking, usability as a discipline is about researching and designing effective technical products or materials by engaging users as co-researchers or co-designers (Eyman, 2009; Salvo, 2001; Simmons & Zoetewey, 2012; Spinuzzi, 2001).

Examining usability from a cross-cultural stance, Sun (2012), on the other hand, asserts that usability is not just about the functionality of a product, but it should be understood in terms of a holistic view of design “as both situated action and constructed meaning” in the differing cultural context of use (p. 55). Similarly, Agboka (2013) looks at usability from participatory localized perspectives, meaning empowering users by accommodating cultural factors prevalent in users’ sites. Agboka (2013) implicitly hints that usability means how well local practices and values are incorporated into a product for a user from another culture.

As TC goes global and businesses engage in some form of international interaction, usability should be viewed from the perspective of meeting end users’ needs and expectations across a range of cultural environments (St.Amant, 2017b). In short, usability, particularly in TC, is now broadly perceived as a rhetorical practice for designing a product that satisfies the demands and contingencies of culturally diverse users, including underserved and underprivileged user groups, in the increasingly globalized world.

Thus, my findings show that one definition of usability cannot be provided because its definition “change[s] from context to context,” from community to community (Salvo, 2001, p. 276). Findings suggest that besides two types of definitions of usability commonly present as process-focused definitions and user-focused definitions, there is a third type that I classify as sociocultural-focused definitions of usability associated with sociocultural aspects of a product for user empowerment, inclusion (Ladner, 2015; Light & Luckin, 2008; Rose, 2016; Sun, 2020; Walton, 2016), and accessibility (Gonzales, 2018; Roberts, 2006; Saru & Wojahn, 2020).

Goals of Usability

As the definition of usability varies depending on the disciplinary practices of scholars, there are certain goals of usability implementation. Based on my study of the collected data sources, I grouped these goals into three thematic categories: a) pragmatic goals, b) user experience goals, and c) sociocultural goals. The following section discusses each category in turn.

Pragmatic Goals

The pragmatic goals of usability are typically associated with the activities that are performed to assess how quickly and easily users use the product to achieve their desired objectives (Barnum, 2002; Dumas & Redish, 1993; Krug, 2014; Nielsen, 1993). In other words, the goals that involve optimizing a user’s interaction with a product come under this category. As discussed by Nielsen (1993), Quesenbery (2003), and Shneiderman et al. (2018), pragmatic or functional goals are primarily related to usability attributes, including:

  • Learnability: how easy the product is for a new user to learn and work with;
  • Efficiency: how well the user can perform the assigned tasks;
  • Memorability: how easily the user can re-establish proficiency after a long time of use;
  • Error recovery: how easily the user can recover from any incorrect user action made when using the product;
  • Utility: to what extent the product provides the right kind of functionality to enable the user to perform desired tasks; and
  • Time: how long it takes for the user to learn how to use actions relevant to a set of tasks.

Pragmatic goals are useful for measuring the extent to which a product is usable in a given context. However, they do not help address the overall quality of the user’s interaction with and perceptions of the product, which is where the user experience goals of usability come into play.

User Experience Goals

While pragmatic goals are concerned with assessing how usable a product is from its own perspective, user experience (UX) goals relate to how users experience the product from their perspective (Sharp, Rogers, & Preece, 2019). Many of these subjective qualities cover a range of both desirable and undesirable emotions and felt experiences: enjoyable or unpleasant; satisfying or frustrating; exciting or boring (Garrett, 2011; Hassenzahl, 2014; Norman, 2013).

UX encompasses a wide range of user-related aspects, including emotional, psychological, and physical reactions that occur before, during, and after an interaction with a product (Haaksma, De Jong, & Karreman, 2018; Hassenzahl & Tractinsky, 2006; Norman, 2004; Roy, 2013). According to Norman (2013), UX means everything that touches upon the user’s experience with the product—including sharing the experience with others or telling somebody about it. Hassenzahl and Tractinsky (2006) define UX as a consequence of a user’s internal state (motivation, expectations, needs, mood, etc.), the characteristics of the product (functionality, complexity, usability, purpose, etc.), and the context or environment within which the interaction with the product occurs. Buley (2013), on the other hand, looks at UX as a professional practice (a set of techniques or methods for researching what users need and want, and to design products or services for them), an outcome (the overall effect created by the interaction and perception that the user has when using a product or service), and an interdisciplinary field (includes visual design, content strategy, product management, writing, analytics, and engineering).

UX highlights non-utilitarian aspects of the user’s interaction with interface design, shifting the focus from product functionality to user affect and sensation in day-to-day life (Haaksma, De Jong, & Karreman, 2018; Law, Roto, Hassenzahl, Vermeeren, & Kort, 2009). The qualities that contribute to making a good user experience include, but are not limited to:

  • Satisfying: the pleasure and the fulfillment of desire users derive from their interactions with the product;
  • Motivating: stimulating users’ interest in using the product;
  • Enjoyable: no frustrations encountered while using the product; and
  • Aesthetically pleasing: the product is beautiful, charming, elegant, and appealing in appearance.

Users’ emotional attachment and involvement with a product is as important as how easily and quickly the product can be used (Norman, 2004). Thus, the UX goals of usability fulfill more than just pragmatic or functional needs.

As global markets for technical products and services grow, so does the need to address the requirements and expectations of users from other cultures (Acharya, 2019; St.Amant, 2017a; Sun, 2020). What is acceptable and usable in one social culture can be unthinkable in another. So, the designer should consider local culture and the context of use when developing products for multicultural users, including underserved and underprivileged user groups. In short, designers should address the needs and expectations of users from differing cultures and localities for user empowerment and inclusion, which is where the sociocultural goals of usability come into play.

Sociocultural Goals

The sociocultural goals of usability involve designing products to empower and improve the lives of users within and across cultures. Recent usability research and scholarship in TC also shows the need for focusing on the sociocultural goals of usability to promote social justice, user empowerment, and accessibility (Acharya, 2019; Dorpenyo, 2020; Oswal, 2019). By considering such goals during the design process, designers can support local legal and political systems, local knowledge, social behaviors, as well as local norms prevailing at users’ sites (Agboka, 2013; Dorpenyo, 2020; Rose et al., 2017; Sun, 2020). In examining usability from a sociocultural perspective, various factors determine a product’s usability in the target culture where the product is used—the factors associated with:

  • Empowerment: in what ways a product can empower individuals to accomplish their goals with all possibilities;
  • Inclusion: how the product can support the full range of human diversity;
  • Accessibility: to what extent the product is accessible to users, including people with disabilities;
  • Meaningfulness: how the product makes sense to users from different cultures; and
  • Sociocultural practices: to what extent the product meets users’ needs, expectations, and behaviors to support their local forms of life within and across cultures and nations.

Users’ perceptions of design effectiveness and the context of use can affect product usability in the target culture with which the designer shares the product. In other words, sociocultural factors—the behaviors, norms, values, and belief systems of an individual’s culture—also determine a product’s usability.

Every culture can have different expectations and needs (St.Amant, 2017a). This means that what works in one cultural system may not work respectively in another. As such, usability practitioners need to know how culture affects users’ expectations and perceptions of technical materials in a different social context or environment (Shivers-McNair & San Diego, 2017; St.Amant, 2015). As argued by Sun (2006), “The local culture in which a [product] is used should be investigated in a context where the collective and the individual meet and where the implementation (instrumental aspect) and interpretation (social aspect) interact’’ (p. 460). Multicultural users have different needs and requirements, so designers must learn how to localize their products. From a localized design perspective, a successful product is one that is developed by recognizing sociocultural, legal, linguistic, and political systems in the target culture—all in light of multicultural users’ needs, preferences, and expectations (Agboka, 2013; Saru & Wojahn, 2020). In short, it is critically important to look at the goals of usability from locally situated sociocultural perspectives, for local variables or factors affecting the use of an item in given cultural systems and traditions also determine product usability in the context of use.

Thus, while the broad goals of usability encompass effectiveness, efficiency, ease-of-use, and user satisfaction, scholars have also indicated other equally important goals associated with cultural usability—situating use practices within the user’s sociocultural systems and traditions. So, it is not enough to design a product for the users who share the cultural systems and traditions with the designer in today’s globally interconnected world. Users’ actual practices of social activities, including those practiced by underserved and underprivileged user groups in other cultures, should also be heeded in the product design process to foster social justice and user empowerment. For these reasons, usability practitioners should consider how sociocultural goals of usability can be achieved to address concerns related to cultural usability and how usability, broadly speaking, can empower users, especially those who are overlooked, underserved, and/or oppressed in the margins. The next section discusses the approaches developed to achieve the goals of usability in an attempt to answer my second research question.

RQ2: What design approaches have been proposed to promote social justice and user empowerment?

My integrative review of usability literature demonstrates the need for employing effective design approaches by understanding what works well for the user and how to make design improvements to meet user expectations (Al-Awar, Chapanis, & Ford, 1981; Johnson, Salvo, & Zoetewey, 2007; Rubin & Chisnell, 2008). Adopting an effective approach to usability can help the designer work with reliability and validity of a product for promoting social justice and user empowerment. In truth, products need to be developed by employing more comprehensive design approaches for addressing issues related to navigation, simplicity, comprehensibility, efficiency, accessibility, and effectiveness (Battleson, Booth, & Weintrop, 2001; Donker-Kuijer, De Jong, & Lentz, 2008; Nielsen, 1999; Nielsen & Molich, 1990; Nielsen & Pernice, 2010; Redish, 2012).

Based on my research study, I grouped the design approaches into two thematic categories:

  • designing for usability
  • usability for social justice and user empowerment

I explain each of them below, highlighting the key approaches related to each category to achieve the usability goals as discussed above.

Designing for Usability

For decades, usability practitioners and researchers have advocated for deploying effective design approaches for enhancing usability. For instance, usability can be optimized in a document, both print and online, by adopting the minimalist approach—that is, using targeted or focused information to perform relevant tasks quickly and efficiently (Carroll, 1990, 1998; Obendorf, 2009; Redish, 1989; van der Meij, 2003; van der Meij & Carroll, 1995). From a minimalist perspective, information should guide the user to perform real, work-based tasks in a simplified way (Mackenzie, 2002; Mirel, 1998; Moran, 2015; Oatey & Cawood, 1997; Redish, 1989). Likewise, a plain language approach to documentation helps designers present information in a format that is easy to find, read, and understand (Redish, 2000, 2012; Redish et al., 2010; Schriver, 1997). Adopting a plain-language approach to usability does not only mean simple writing and design; it also means ethically-motivated communications (Matveeva, Moosally, & Willerton, 2017; Willerton, 2015), striving for honest conversation through accuracy, clarity, usefulness, truthfulness, and accessibility, especially for those with low literacy skills (Grene, Cleary, & Marcus-Quinn, 2017; Schriver, 2017; Willerton, 2015).

Looking at plain language from a social justice and human rights perspective, scholars such as Jones and Williams (2017) assert that language accessibility plays a large role in enacting civic engagement and social activism. Unnecessarily complex language, for instance, increases extraneous mental efforts that impair learning and thereby reinforces social marginalization (Cheung, 2017). As a marked shift from clear communication to critical action for redressing injustice, plain language accessibility can be a useful tool for thinking about and developing strategies to achieve equity and inclusion. Thus, in promoting equitable civic engagement and user empowerment, the plain-language approach to usability calls on the ability to engage diverse and often underserved non-experts to make content clear, usable, useful, understandable, and accessible.

Advocating for usability to accomplish either the pragmatic or the UX goals of usability, scholars have proposed other design approaches such as participatory design (Ehn, 1992; Moore & Elliott, 2015; Simmons, 2007; Spinuzzi, 2005), user-centered design (Andrews et al., 2012; Card, Moran, & Newell, 1983; Johnson, 1998), and user experience (UX) design (Garrett, 2011; Hassenzahl & Tractinsky, 2006; Norman, 2004). Adopting the participatory design (PD) approach means working with the user as both an actor and a co-designer to co-construct the whole design practice and make design decisions collaboratively (Bannon & Ehn, 2013; Simmons, 2007; Spinuzzi, 2005; Stephens & DeLorme, 2019; Zachry & Spyridakis, 2016).

Focusing on the “how” of design rather than the “what,” TC scholars have also argued for user participation to cooperatively design a product to maximize its usability by responding to users’ needs and expectations (see, for example, Getto, 2014; Longo, 2014; Salvo, 2001; Spinuzzi, 2005). Situating the participant as a co-creator or collaborative partner, the PD approach holds that the effective design methodology is one that engages users at every level of the design process, including preliminary research, assessing user needs, prototyping, and user testing (Bacha, 2018; Getto, 2014; Oswal, 2014).

Similarly, the user-centered design (UCD) approach considers the user not only as an inevitable entity in the design process but also as an “integral, participatory force in the process” (Johnson, 1998, p. 30). Unlike PD where users control the design, feel ownership, and work with the design team as co-designers, users do not control the design in UCD (Spinuzzi, 2003). Instead, task support is crucial, which means designers must know who the users are, what they wish to accomplish, and what support they need to perform the desired objectives successfully. To get user insights and shape the design of a product for usability, a number of usability inspection techniques are suggested:

  • think-aloud protocols (Boren & Ramey, 2000; Cooke, 2010; Ericsson & Simon, 1980; Mack, Lewis, & Carroll, 1983)
  • heuristic evaluation (Nielsen & Molich, 1990)
  • cognitive walkthrough (Wharton, Rieman, Lewis, & Polson, 1994)
  • eye-tracking (Cooke, 2005, 2008)
  • video highlights (Yeats & Carter, 2005)
  • cognitive shortcut (Lentz & De Jong, 2009)
  • contextual inquiry (Mirel, 1996)

Identifying user needs and recognizing the kind of support a product can provide form the basis of the product’s requirements and ground subsequent design and development to achieve the pragmatic goals of usability. These activities are fundamental to a UCD approach.

Central to the user experience design (UXD) approach, on the other hand, is the process of creating products to achieve the UX goals of usability—the goals associated with supporting users’ needs, expectations, and behaviors (Garrett, 2011; Norman, 2004; Schriver, 2001; Williams, 2007). UXD concerns how a product keeps the user engaged in continuous exploration, provides a deeper level of personal satisfaction, and becomes a part of the user’s lifestyle (Roy, 2013). As argued by Garrett (2011), it is UX that determines the quality of a product as experienced by the user—anything from hate to love, from anger to happiness, from indifference to passion, from hope to despair, from pride to humiliation. In fact, building usability into a product requires more than achieving pragmatic and/or user experience goals of usability. It also requires understanding users’ entire perceptions of use, their interpretation of those perceptions, and resulting changes in their personal and social lives. To meet these requirements in national and international contexts, attention should be given to the sociocultural goals of usability during the design process, which, in turn, will promote social justice and user empowerment.

Usability for Social Justice and User Empowerment

To achieve the sociocultural goals of usability and TC’s commitment to justice and empowerment, more collaborative and respectful design approaches should be considered during the design process. These approaches include “narrative inquiry” (Jones, 2016a), “decolonial methodologies” (Agboka, 2014; Haas, 2012), “participatory localization,” (Agboka, 2013), and “culturally localized user experience” (CLUE) (Sun, 2012). While narrative inquiry as a design tool is ideal for engaging considerations of social justice and empowerment by privileging participant agency and voice in relation to design (Jones, 2016a), decolonial methodologies serve to address issues of localized usability by decolonizing the myth that users are simply manipulators and passive recipients of information. Participatory localization, on the other hand, emphasizes “user involvement, not as isolated user participation but as user-in-community involvement and participation in the design phase of products” (Agboka, 2013, p. 42, emphasis in original).

Likewise, the CLUE approach helps study and inform cross-cultural design by integrating action and meaning through a dialogical, cyclical design process and by delivering “a holistic user experience for culturally diverse users” (Sun, 2012, p. 81). Discussing how the CLUE approach functions, Sun (2012) writes, “The CLUE approach begins with an exploration of user activity in context for design inspirations, and continues and circulates in a cycle as users localize a technology according to their lifestyles” (p. 82). Adopting CLUE as a design approach allows usability practitioners to integrate design aspect and use aspect into a product to be used in locally situated cultural contexts, which means designing meaningful and empowering products for users, including underserved and underprivileged user groups, from diverse cultures.

As the TC field today engages largely with attentiveness to audiences in the global context, a number of TC scholars have advocated for localization usability, emphasizing that a product designed for one culture needs to be revised or customized to fit the user of another (see, for example, Agboka, 2013; Dorpenyo, 2019, 2020; Gonzales & Zantjer, 2015; Gu & Yu, 2016; St.Amant, 2009, 2017a; Sun, 2012; Yunker, 2003). Localization should be relevant to local needs and should take place at users’ sites as a collaborative effort between the users and the product. In short, we should not forget that “user localization, audience analysis, and cross-cultural communication are [also] important practices in our field” (Shivers-MacNair & San Diego, 2017, p. 109).

Discussing user localization as integrating a technology into a “user’s everyday life after adoption, socially and emotionally” (p. 249), Sun (2012) contends that the differences of local cultures should be taken into account for enhancing the dynamic interaction between situated uses and the surrounding local cultural context. By definition, localization means contextualizing a product (Agboka 2013; Rose et al., 2017; Suchman, 2002; Sun, 2012) and meanings (Gonzales & Zantjer, 2015) to improve people’s lives, including those of the underserved and the underprivileged, in a specific locale where the product is used. To succeed in localization efforts and thereby improve people’s lives in underserved and underrepresented communities requires a dedicated focus on the locally situated sociocultural systems, traditions, and the context of use situation—including users’ knowledge, their social practices, and the nature of work in which they are engaged (St.Amant, 2017a). So, as noted by Sun (2012), “If meaning and cultural factors are not carefully studied and attended to in design, serious breakdowns will occur” (p. 51). In this sense, from a social justice perspective, usability is not limited to assessing the functional characteristics of a product; it also implies how the product can meaningfully change or improve users’ lives, especially but not exclusively in underserved and underrepresented communities.

Understanding usability from a social justice perspective provides insights into the ways the design of a product can empower and prioritize certain groups of users and pushes others to the margin. In designing for user empowerment, usability practitioners need to “recognize and acknowledge that particular designs prioritize and privilege particular people and that, as such, these designs can function as exclusionary sites of injustice” (Walton, Jones, & Moore, 2019, p. 85). To address issues of social justice and user empowerment, usability practitioners need to consider underserved user groups’ contributions, interpretations, and participation as co-designers throughout the product design cycle. Essentially, usability for social justice and user empowerment necessitates employing inclusive design approaches for supporting users, particularly those who are marginalized and disempowered in the dominant culture.

Thus, this integrative literature review on usability in relation to TC elucidates usability as an important area of study in the TC field that has recently turned to a new direction—shifting from a primarily instrumental to a justice-oriented design focus. This orientation asks usability practitioners to think about deploying localization strategies in ways that will reify and promote empowerment and positively impact the lived experiences of product users in the target locale (Jones & Williams, 2018). While thinking about localization, designers, however, should not take the local and the global as a binary relation, as both of them are mutually constituted by each other (Sun & Getto, 2017). More importantly, they are “so closely intertwined that the former is actually one part of the latter” due to “an open, back-and-forth dialogue” constantly happening between them (Sun, 2012, p. 25). In the next section, I present the study’s implications for TC as informed in the representative data corpus analyzed for this study.


In this section, I discuss the implications of this study for practice, research, and pedagogy in TC. As indicated in the literature, I also include some challenges of integrating usability into these areas from a social justice perspective.

Implications for Practice

As the field of TC expands internationally, practitioners have weighty responsibilities to produce usable and accessible technical materials for multicultural users. Along with TC’s recent cultural and social justice turns, practitioners need to look beyond traditional design approaches in order to better understand how usability can redress inequities and promote justice. Since usability is concerned with social justice, user empowerment, accessibility, and related issues (Acharya, 2019; Clement, 1994; Dombrowski, 2017; Light & Luckin, 2008; Oswal, 2019; Rose, 2016), practitioners should be attentive to how they can develop good-experience-driven localized products to empower culturally diverse users in the international context. To create meaningful and empowering products for multicultural users, practitioners should also be aware of how they can incorporate social justice-oriented, inclusive design approaches into such products with a fuller understanding of users’ sociocultural systems (i.e., the systems of ethics, norms, and language) and the context of use. Implementing more flexible and justice-oriented design approaches as advocated by TC scholars (see, for example, Agboka, 2013; Haas, 2012; Jones, 2016a; Sun 2012) might help usability practitioners learn more about the possibilities of designing the products that engage cultural differences (i.e., locally situated sociocultural systems and traditions) for fostering social justice and user empowerment. When designing for global contexts, it is imperative to use flexible design methods to deal with uncertainties during the design process. Of course, rigid design approaches can, in Spinuzzi’s (2000) words, “marginalize, inhibit, and discourage certain types of users and assign circumscribed roles to those [users]” (p. 215).

In considering these factors during the design process, practitioners, however, might face a number of challenges. For instance, despite TC’s cultural and social justice turns, industries may not reflect this change or may consider it to be important but not economically feasible. Also, many powerful national and international corporations might not realize how centering the voices and experiences of underserved and marginalized user groups can lead to more comprehensive design considerations, methods, practices, and resulting designs for social justice (Rose et al., 2018). Additionally, the skills, competencies, and knowledge technical communicators possess have not been recognized as a good background for usability-related jobs (Lauer & Brumberger, 2016; Redish & Barnum, 2011). More so, many workplaces give less priority and value to what technical communicators do (Martin, Carrington, & Muncie, 2017). This is arguably due to managers and technical staff harboring outdated views of TC and usability, which have traditionally been relegated to the end of the design and production process. By demonstrating how user advocacy promotes social justice and inclusion and how an advocacy perspective in design adds value to broader organizational goals, TC practitioners might gain institutional power harnessed by their colleagues who are product designers, engineers, programmers, or managers.

Implications for Research

Given the needs expressed in the literature, one direction the TC field can take is that of research focused on the usability of information products or systems to improve “the human experience for the oppressed”—interrogating and investigating how oppressed or underserved groups experience the world in which they live (Jones, 2016b, p. 357). Theofanos and Redish (2003, 2005) argue for a paradigm shift toward equal accessibility for the underserved, including vision-impaired users, to achieve the same sense of experience clear-sighted people do. As stated by the authors, designing instructions to accommodate people with disabilities is not sufficient; it is also critically important to observe, listen to, and talk with them to improve usability for accessibility. Essentially, a social justice perspective on usability research can address which users are advocated for and whose experience and expertise should be brought to the center for building the culture of inclusivity.

Another direction the TC field needs to pursue is that of localization usability for promoting social justice and user empowerment in the resource-constrained international context. In reviewing the usability literature over the last 40 years, I noted that the question concerning user empowerment in relation to usability for un/disenfranchised and underrepresented users across cultures is not well addressed in TC research and scholarship. A few scholars have called for creating culturally sensitive products for the targeted user community (see, for instance, Getto & St.Amant, 2015; Hall, De Jong, & Steehouder, 2004; St.Amant, 2017a; Sun, 2012). However, TC research on localized usability for promoting social justice and user empowerment in resource-constrained, underdeveloped countries is very limited.

Conducting usability research across cultures and nations can be complex for many reasons. One key challenge a usability researcher can confront is choosing the appropriate research method to collect rich, detailed data that afford the researcher a thorough knowledge of what is being studied. For instance, many data collection methods developed in the West for improving usability (such as in-depth interviews, surveys, focus groups, and think-aloud protocols) do not always work well in non-Western cultures (Baxter, Courage, & Caine, 2015). Other challenges might involve access to research participants, language gaps, translation, cultural differences, and ethical and legal obligations. More importantly, the challenge is to address “the resonance expectations of different audiences—audiences who have varying [cultural and language] backgrounds . . . and who view research as relating to different objectives” in the international context (St.Amant & Graham, 2019, p. 6). Despite these challenges, conducting research on usability for social justice across cultures and nations can, in Sauer’s (2018) words, “offer our field more and better prospects for future prosperity” (p. 370). Building an inclusive, just future starts with understanding the needs and expectations of all users, including underserved, underrepresented user groups from different cultures. Usability research in TC, thus, should be directed toward supporting these groups by engaging cultural differences globally.

Implications for Pedagogy

Much of the work of technical communicators involves developing products or materials by responding to audiences’ usability expectations (Alexander, 2013; Haaksma, De Jong, & Karreman, 2018; St.Amant, 2017a). For this reason, integrating usability projects into our pedagogical practices and programs can help students learn how to design technical materials from users’ perspectives (Cleary & Flammia, 2012; Howard, 2018; Zhou, 2014). Doing so can also facilitate students’ learning about user needs and requirements by developing partnerships with communities and organizations (Chong, 2016; Rose et al., 2017; Scott, 2008). Though many TC programs offer usability courses, they are often not sufficient for students to acquire marketable skills for the workplace to ensure their success (Chong, 2016, 2018; Harner & Rich, 2005). To better prepare students for developing empowering products and working toward building a just future, TC programs should focus on offering courses that include social justice-related usability projects. Such projects ultimately allow students to acknowledge what it means to center the voices and desires of those who have been marginalized and traditionally been poorly treated by technical systems and services (Jones & Williams, 2017; Walton, 2016). Through such projects, students can also learn how to implement design solutions for user empowerment. Offering usability courses in TC with a focus on fostering social justice, thus, can play a large role in preparing students for generating meaningful and empowering products to improve life for those that are socially disadvantaged and underserved in the dominant culture. In short, integrating social justice-oriented usability projects into the usability courses in TC curricula can ultimately facilitate students to understand what it means to design for building a culture of inclusivity.

As the TC field grows internationally, there is also the need for equipping students with related educational practices to generate effective technical products and informational services in the global marketplace (St.Amant, 2011). To build our pedagogical foundations on the international level, TC instructors need to consider incorporating usability-related projects into their pedagogical practices to prepare students for developing a variety of meaningful and empowering materials for global distribution. Furthermore, to shift usability practices for social changes and actionable outcomes, such projects should be designed in ways that can “provide technical communication students with education in engaged citizenship’’ (Sapp & Crabtree, 2002, p. 412) to work toward creating “a more equitable, accessible society” (Palmeri, 2006, p. 63).

As my review of the literature suggests, there are, however, some unusual practical challenges of integrating usability projects into our courses and curricula. First, these types of projects entail more time, resources, and effort (Breuch, Zachry, & Spinuzzi, 2001; Chong, 2016; Leydens, 2012; Scott, 2008). Second, what students learn about usability for social justice and inclusion in an academic setting may not comply with what they find in a workplace setting. For instance, technical communication has changed along with its cultural and social justice turns, but industries might not reflect this change. Also, technical communicators are not often viewed as professionals with user research backgrounds in many industrial settings and their roles remain separate from those of development teams and user research groups (Redish & Barnum, 2011). Third, instructors may face budgetary difficulties and/or administrative obstacles to implementing such projects most effectively. Finally, collaborating with real users as co-designers in international contexts can be more challenging and difficult due to various factors, including language barriers, cultural differences, and time zone differences.


As my integrative literature review reveals, several diverging conceptualizations of usability exist in the literature, and offering a consensus definition of usability is a challenging enterprise. More interestingly, it illustrates that usability as a topic has recently begun to shift TC’s disciplinary practices and research from designing solely for accomplishing functional and UX goals to designing holistically for attaining sociocultural-related goals through the implementation of social justice-oriented design approaches. This shift in how we approach usability has clear implications for how we need to approach practice, research, and instruction for promoting social justice and user empowerment in globally changing environments. In short, we need to reconceptualize usability and its goals to shape and change the future of TC with what Dilger (2006) calls “extreme usability” that focuses on achieving results expediently.

To address the recent calls for localized cultural usability research in building an inclusive form of TC (Agboka, 2013; Opel, 2014; Rose, 2016; Walton & Jones, 2013), my review suggests the need for adopting more viable design approaches for creating meaningful and empowering products for multicultural users, especially those who have “limited access to, or reduced availability of, resources” (Rose, 2016, p. 433). The attention to usability for social justice and user empowerment is still at the emerging stage concerning localized cultural designs from international perspectives. In essence, as the momentum for usability rapidly grows, TC practitioners should deem how they can help build a just, equitable future and how they can support the needs and expectations of all users, including populations that have been overlooked, underserved, or marginalized, as well as populations from non-Western cultures.

Suggestions for Further Research

This study suggests that usability is not limited to what makes a product expedient to use, but also considers how the product can play a key role in improving peoples’ lives. The study reveals the need for further studies of usability for social justice and user empowerment through empirical studies that can validate current understandings of best usability practices in diverse organizational or workplace settings. The study also indicates the importance of localization usability as well as the need to train the next generation of usability practitioners in TC more extensively. Given the consistent calls made for enhancing social justice and inclusivity through better design, significant further studies on usability for social justice and user empowerment are needed. And I strongly believe now is the time for our field to commit to action that fulfills TC’s longstanding commitment to such agendas.

On a personal level, after working on this review and reading dozens and dozens of articles, books, and other materials on usability, I find myself with more questions than answers:

  • What is (or should be) the role or place of usability in integrated content environments, where teams such as marketing, tech pubs, and training share content models and taxonomies and single source (or multi-source) content to varied channels in varied outputs?
  • To what extent have technical products been studied and produced from a social justice perspective in the global context?
  • To what extent are underserved, underprivileged, or marginalized user groups within and across cultures and nations taken into consideration in an organizational or workplace setting when designing and developing technical materials for diverse audiences in today’s global age?

From social justice and user empowerment perspectives, designers should make usability the first concern in making design decisions and should avoid creating any accessibility barriers for the underserved and the underprivileged, including people with disabilities. As argued by Horton and Quesenbery (2013), “Good accessibility is designed for the full range of capabilities, as well as for the context of use or environmental constraints” (p. 3). As we move forward on building an equitable, just future in the globally interconnected world, TC scholars and practitioners must commit to exploring and addressing the oppressive effects of particular designs for particular users, especially those in underserved and underprivileged communities, within and across cultures and nations. We must understand the ways in which such designs can function as exclusionary sites of injustice in those cultures and nations.


I would like to thank Karla Saari Kitalong for her advice and insightful comments on my work. I would also like to thank the editor and the anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments and careful reading of the manuscript.


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Keshab Raj Acharya is a faculty at the University at Buffalo—The State University of New York—where he teaches technical communication courses in the Department of Engineering Education. His research interests in technical and professional communication include usability studies, inter/cross cultural technical communication, international technical communication, and social justice.