69.4 November 2022

Localized Usability and Agency in Design: Whose Voice Are We Advocating?

By Dr. Amber Lancaster and Dr. Carie S. T. King

Technical communication (TC) is a field that embraces forward thinking, discipline expansion, and community engagement. As such, recent TC scholarship has highlighted a shift in what it means to localize information products (i.e., design and interaction, interface and functionality, personalization and customization, media forms and communication messages, etc.). In her 1995 book International Technical Communication: How to Export Information about High Technology, Nancy Hoft defines localization as “creating or adapting an information product for use in a specific target country or specific target market” (p. 11). Almost three decades later, TC continues localizing to make information products’ use for one group work for others in international local contexts, but our field recognizes a change in how and why and for whom we localize.

Globalization creates an ongoing need for TC to localize information products. As Sun and Getto (2017) note, “The design, implementation, evaluation, distribution, and consumption of information products and services happen more often on a global level. In a globalized economy, the ultimate value of a product or service depends on its global success” (p. 89). However, globalization introduces many challenges for localizing information products: e.g., cultural differences, user group diversity, technology use and constraint variances, and accessibility and ability statuses. Consequently, designing for global success and localizing information products with focus on user experience (UX) may inadvertently target majority user groups and exclude those who do not “fit” the target market or that conflict with some users’ needs. The globalization challenge we face, then, is designing localized inclusive information products.

This special issue focuses on the challenges for localization with usability and UX in mind and explores our field’s changing practices in how and why and for whom we localize. Our special issue CFP reflected personal and professional experiences and observations. We saw and experienced the so-often disconnect between the design of information products and their users. Amber was raised in a blue-collar home of an automotive factory worker and had close ties to a disastrous factory explosion when workers’ voices were excluded in design processes (documented in Lancaster, 2018). Carie is the daughter/dependent of an U.S. Air Force officer who was stationed in more than one country, and she experienced intercultural adjustments and challenges of design for a particular user population to which she did not belong. Our personal and professional lives intersect at UX: our lived experiences, scholarship, and consulting work have related to design issues and we desire to enhance information products for others. We see a growing need in TC to advocate for others and to design with greater user agency.

We recognize that a design approach of “one size fits all” often excludes the many voices of diverse user groups and that designers should explore how users fit into a larger global population. But we also recognize that design decisions are complex, requiring reconciliation, compassion, empathy, and acceptance by both designer and user to ensure that the information product embraces a more balanced design. We connect design balance to the idea of equilibrium—“a state of intellectual or emotional balance” and “a state of adjustment between opposing or divergent influences or elements” (“equilibrium,” n.d.)—and call for UX that considers agency for change as well as the unique interacting influences that shape design.

The application of equilibrium to TC allows designers and diverse users to respect others, give the benefit of the doubt in design, and consider expanding the territory of users in a more global community. It also encourages communication, evaluation, interaction, and transparent feedback to further develop products, even after launch. Applying equilibrium to TC—and specifically design, UX, inclusion, agency, and advocacy—rather than giving one user group a priority, designers should seek to expand localization and rethink how users fit into a global population.

As we noted in our CFP (Lancaster & King, 2022), recent TC scholarship has called for technical communicators to critically evaluate usability methods because of many, often contentious, social issues and a growing global environment. The field is expanding its considerations and interdisciplinarity; some recent studies (in the past six years) included articles about:

  • cultural sensitivity (e.g., Sun & Getto, 2017; Walwema, 2016)
  • voter registration and minority voting (e.g., Jones & Williams, 2018; Pryor, 2017)
  • environmental design (e.g., Sackey, 2020)
  • accessibility (e.g., Hitt, 2018)
  • social justice (e.g., Shirley, 2019)
  • participatory culture (e.g., Arduser, 2018; Breuch, 2018).

In our CFP, we asked, “How do [designers] strike a balance in representing all voices in the design process? How do they determine whose voices to advocate for?” and we called for research in TC “that explores how our field might expand localized usability to examine how variables depend on, connect with, and contend with each other to maintain a state of balance in UX” (Lancaster & King, 2022).

Shifting in how and why and for whom we localize allows TC to embrace unique research methods and design principles for designing for diverse users—per age, gender, ethnicity, culture, education, etc.—particularly because users differ across cultures (Acharya, 2018). Adding to this, a shift in industry includes considering usability as an interactive experience that is highly personalized/customized: in other words, different tools and processes need to interact and adapt in real time for lifestyle, health, medical care, fitness, and other human experiences and needs. We also see increased use of AI to aid in those personalized/customized technology experiences. And we see greater reliance on the individual’s engagement with the tools to ensure personalization/customization. As a result, technical communicators are left to consider so many user variables in the design and UX process. By engaging users in participatory design and as “co-designers” (Bannon & Ehn, 2013; Stephens & DeLorme, 2019; Zachry & Spyridakis, 2016), TC has attempted to address designing for diverse users, but we wonder—what more can we do?

In our own work, we have considered diversity in consulting parties, creating transdisciplinary usability testing to consider different perspectives and needs (Lancaster & Yeats, 2016). We have also considered different prototyping methods (Andrews et al., 2012; Lancaster, 2008) that allow designers to consider localization, user agency, and social justice in addressing users’ needs and expectations and thus to personalize designs. We have studied diverse populations to learn about their perspectives (e.g., King, 2017—medical rhetoric; Lancaster, 2018—risk communication) to note how they address their priorities and seek to express their agency, particularly when decision makers are not “listening.” And we too have examined user groups that have not been considered in the design and implementation of tools (King et al., 2018; Lancaster, 2006). However, we see where more work in our field is needed to advocate for others and to design with (and for) increased user agency.

Thus, this special issue called on authors to consider agency for change but also to share the unique interacting influences and considerations that are shaping design. Authors submitted summaries of their innovative research methods and design practices through which they are encouraging inclusive change and balance. This balance in design requires “give and take”—i.e., designers consider potential users’ responses and anticipate counter responses to design for a larger and broader user population.

For this special issue, we invited submissions that addressed recent research related to localization, usability, UX, advocacy, and agency but watched for proposals that welcomed broader inclusion in user identity. We were overwhelmed by the response. Research proposals poured in; proposals were diverse and well thought out. In considering what proposed manuscripts to include, we sought originality in thinking with a focus on empathy and a mindset of unifying users but also on helping to solve the complex design challenges our field faces for localizing information products. We also looked for methods that can serve as examples that future scholars can study, use, and adapt.

From an exciting and large pool of strong and relevant submissions that underwent anonymized peer review, we chose seven articles that provide innovative approaches to TC and that consider balance of voices.

In “Understanding Agency through Testimonios: An Indigenous Approach to UX Research,” Nora Rivera frames her research through a scholar’s lens but with valuable “insider” knowledge and perspective to present Indigenous testimonios—responses to prompts and narratives that include users’ experiences but with a collective, community-focused voice. She also shares how Indigenous interpreters and translators in medicine, law, education, and industry exercise their personal agency while also sharing community “pain points” and calling for social change. Rivera’s research makes readers aware of cultural values and communication patterns and about their collective challenges in Westernized systems, benefiting the systems, the technical communicators, and the Indigenous individuals and communities whose stories and calls for social change are valuable to develop systems that balance all voices.

Brett Oppegaard and Michael Rabby’s “Gamifying Good Deeds: Values in Play during a Descriptathon and Beyond” considers Descriptathons, focusing on shifted design for Descriptathon 8 (D8). They provide the philosophy, ongoing challenges, and research from the latest event, established to create Audio Descriptions of print and digital media for users who are blind or low vision so users can experience the content of visual elements. D8 demonstrated the evolution of the organizers’ thinking, including a gamified event that encouraged participants—those who benefit from the Audio Descriptions and also those who want to participate for service and the challenge of the event—to collaborate and engage. The beauty of the Descriptathon is that it calls participants who are and who are not blind or low vision, all who value accessibility, to engage in creating more accessible content and addresses their other values in the construct of the event.

In “Exploring Localized Usability Implementation in mHealth App Design for Healthcare Practitioners in the Global South Context: A Case Study,” Keshab Acharya challenges Global North (GN) designers to design apps, specifically medical and health apps like the Medscape app, with global users, including Global South (GS) users, in mind. Keshab surveyed and interviewed healthcare practitioners (including medical students) in Nepal about their experiences using the Medscape app and learned about many of the concerns and issues that GS practitioners might experience. Developers should consult with GS users and address localized needs and expectations and also apply persuasive design concepts for localized usability for GS users. Regional accessibility needs to be considered—so users in low-bandwidth areas can access the information. Designing these apps with GS users in mind increases the global use of the tool and also indirectly improves the healthcare of residents who receive care from the app users.

In “Everyone is Always Aging: Glocalizing Digital Experiences by Considering the Oldest Cohort of Users,” Allegra Smith reminds readers that everyone is aging and focuses her research (using task-analysis methods) on the 75+-age user group. She observes that users were unable to complete what some consider basic tasks, including finding information about income taxes, changing their browser homepage, and mapping the distance between two locations in their vicinity. She notes that usability for an aging population requires glocalization and participatory design—as she writes, “designing for them and alongside them—for technology.” Through her research, she establishes balance in voices by studying a frequently overlooked population, expands the usability considerations of tools by setting her eyes on the future of every user, and calls designers to empathetic design for the ever-aging user population.

Risk messaging is a focus in “Do Voices Really Make a Difference? Investigating the Value of Local Video Narratives in Risk Perceptions and Attitudes toward Sea-Level Rise” by Daniel Richards and Sonia Stephens. They share findings from an empirical study to localize and improve risk messaging, specifically related to sea-level rise (SLR) and flooding. Surveying more than 100 participants and then conducting follow-up focus groups, the authors ask if video storytelling or textual storytelling is more effective in TC for local users. Their research demonstrates that localized stories are compelling, and both video and text were effective modalities in their research. In this way, they demonstrate an emphasis on improving safety measures for residents in coastal regions—research that is applicable to areas around the world that are susceptible to SLR and flooding. Their research goes beyond information and empathetically urges technical communicators to act: to research further and apply effective design to inform residents in coastal areas.

Guiseppi Getto and Suzan Flanagan also focus their research on safety in “Localizing UX Advocacy and Accountability: A Lean Workflow that Amplifies User Agency.” They address their observations of a Lean workflow in creating SeaMe, an app for boaters to use for recreational boating safety, and they establish the importance of involving boaters, who use the app for communication and navigation, as well as Boating Law Administrators, who use the app to track and find missing boaters (for safety assurance). Getto and Flanagan interviewed 141 potential stakeholders to design the app; they share personas that they created in the research process. The app then is developed with features to accommodate multiple groups’ (boaters’ and organizations’) needs. Without user input, with boaters having user agency, users’ needs will be overlooked and they will not adopt the tool. The authors emphasize connecting with multiple stakeholders (and thus users) to balance voices and benefit boaters as well as administrators and emergency rescue services.

In a different thread, Daniel Hocutt, Nupoor Ranade, and Gustav Verhulsdonck share “Localizing Content: The Roles of Technical & Professional Communicators and Machine Learning in Personalized Chatbot Responses.” They challenge technical communicators to become more tech savvy in understanding how AI, machine learning (ML), chatbots, and other TC work to interact with users. Considering microcontent from Meena, an AI-driven chatbot that uses natural language processing to respond to users, the authors explain how technology is being developed to engage users, to anticipate what users want and need, and to personalize data (responses to searches) that are being pushed to users. The personalized content from AI-assisted technology is localized: users’ locations and previous content and requests are used in customizing the responses. The authors acknowledge that effective construct of language and structure of AI-driven tools requires that technical communicators consider global users to create personalized responses with accurate, effective, and efficient content. Technical communicators and TC instructors are challenged to integrate assemblages of the actors—users, AI, content, and metrics—into student learning outcomes for future technical communicators.


Dr. Amber Lancaster is an associate professor of communication, director of professional writing (PWR) at Oregon Tech, and associate editor for Communication Design Quarterly. She has extensive experience in usability testing and client-based research projects as both academic and consultant/contractor. Amber started the mobile usability lab at Oregon Tech and previously worked in the user research lab at Texas Tech. She administers usability research for corporate and academic clients and teaches user research, usability testing, risk communication, and technical writing. Her publications in usability include manuscripts on prototyping methods, distributed usability, social issues in UX, and transdisciplinary research models in UX. Her research focuses on the intersections of user centered design (UCD), ethics, and social issues as well as on technology and writing pedagogy. She has published in Technical Communication, IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, International Journal of Sociotechnology and Knowledge Development, and Intercom. Her forthcoming work includes a special issue of Programmatic Perspectives, a special issue of IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, and an edited book collection with SUNY Press.

Dr. Carie S. T. King is a clinical professor and associate director of rhetoric at The University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) and managing editor of publications for Sigma Tau Delta. She is also co-founder and partner in a communication consulting firm that works with international professionals to help them effectively communicate in globalized industries. Her background is in medical editing and clinical research, specializing in TC and ethics. Recently awarded UTD’s President’s Award for Excellence in Online/Hybrid Teaching, Carie works with graduate instructors and teaches a diverse load, including classes in rhetoric, intercultural communication, and usability. She is collaborating (COIL) with two instructors from Japanese universities each summer. She created and implemented the first usability course for the UX and game-design programs at UTD. Carie integrates UCD in her curriculum and researches pedagogy, usability, and ethics. Her monograph, The Rhetoric of Breast Cancer: Patient-to-patient Discourse in an Online Community, is published with Lexington Health Series; her work has also been published in International Journal of Intercultural Relations, Health Communication, and Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, with forthcoming work including a special issue of Programmatic Perspectives and an edited book collection with SUNY Press.


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Andrews, C., Burleson, D., Dunks, K., Elmore, K., Lambert, C. S., Oppegaard, B., Pohland, E. E., Saad, D., Scharer, J. S., Wery, R. L., Wesley, M., & Zobel, G. (2012). A new method in user-centered design: Collaborative prototype design process (CPDP). Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 42(2), 123–142. https://doi.org/10.2190/TW.42.2.c

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Shirley, B. (2019). Working toward social justice by engaging other disciplines in engaging communities: A technical communication scholar’s role. In Proceedings for 2019 CPTSC Annual Conference. http://2019conference.cptsc.org/wpcontent/uploads/sites/4/2019/10/2019-Program_updated_12SEPT19.pdf

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