Usability Articles: Summaries & Précis

Post your three annotations in MLA Format to the Reading & Usability listserv, ( using the rhetorical précis method.

A rhetorical précis is a highly structured summary designed to explain the rhetorical structure and purpose of an argument.

[1] Bibliographic citation (MLA): Author(s). “Title of Article.” Title of Journal. Vol (Year): page #’s.

[2] A sentence with a rhetorically active verb that both puts the article in some context — the type of journal or book in which it appears — and describes what the writer is doing with the text (“suggests that,” “argues that,” “implies that,” “urges that,” “claims that,” etc.)

[3] An explanation of how the writer develops, structures, and supports the argument. This is usually done by comparing and contrasting, illustrating, defining, or putting the article into context

[4] An explanation of the writer’s purpose, followed by an “in order to” clause, which explains the intended effect on the audience

[5] A description of the intended audience

Note that the précis form is not evaluative (we don’t care if you liked it or not); it’s analytic, and attempts to show how the writer constructs her argument.

Here’s my example:

Hughes, Michael. “Rigor in Usability Testing.” Technical Communication 46 (1999): 488-494.

In his article in the “Applied Theory” section of a 1999 issue of Technical Communication, Hughes argues that usability testing is a “particularly challenging field” (488) because of its reliance on both qualitative and quantitative methodologies, and that technical communicators have a responsibility to be rigorous in designing usability tests. After sketching out some clients’ concerns with qualitative techniques (“How can we be expected to make changes on the basis of such a small sample of users?” [488]) and the narrow range of data provided by quantitative techniques, which can allow too-wide inferences about target audiences, Hughes compares and contrasts the main differences between the two methodologies.

Hughes defines his terms before applying them to specific attributes of validity and reliability: “Quantitative research relies on data in the form of numbers” (489), which he then illustrates with an example from usability: “Nielsen (1993) offers a long list of items that could be quantified in a usability test:

  • Time to complete tasks
  • Number of tasks that can be completed within a given time limit
  • Ratio between successful interactions and errors
  • Time spent recovering errors
  • Number of user errors (489)

By contrast, “qualitative research includes spoken words, actions, gestures, facial expressions, documents, and artifacts …” (489).Hughes then discusses each methodology in light of their various outcomes, pointing out validity and reliability concerns; he concludes that such research methods should be driven by the research question that the usability test seeks to engage.

Hughes equates validity and reliability in terms of “credibility” in order to situate the technical communicator as someone who both mediates between designers, technology, and users, and also to “help clients understand the legitimate application and limitations of their findings” (493).

The emphasis on credibility promotes the value of the technical communicator’s work by establishing an ethos of rigor, an ongoing point of discussion among the practitioners who read this journal.

The materials and assignment, above, are adapted from Margret Woodworth’s 1988 article: Woodworth, Margaret K. “The Rhetorical Précis.” Rhetoric Review. 7 (1988): 156-63.

See also: “Rhetorical Precis Page” (English Department, Winthrop University)

Annotated Bibliography” (Jim Zeigler)

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