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Rhetorical Awareness and User-Centered Design

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In the last twenty years, two important ideas have developed that help professionals compose effective workplace writing:

  • Rhetorical awareness
  • User-centered design (also known as the reader-centered approach).

Rhetorical Awareness

The idea of rhetorical awareness for workplace writing includes the following concepts:

  • Workplace writing is persuasive. For example, when a writer composes a résumé, the persuasive goal is to get a job interview. Similarly, a report writer may need to persuade a client to take action to improve work conditions ensuring employee safety and timely production
  • Workplace writing, since it's persuasive, must consider the rhetorical situation:
    • Purpose (why the document is being written, the goals of the document)
    • Audience (who will read the document, includes shadow readers-unintended audiences who might read your work)
    • Stakeholders (who may be affected by the document or project)
    • Context (the background of and situation in which the document is created).

Through rhetorical awareness, professional communication has shifted from a genre-based approach, which focused on learning and reproducing forms or templates of documents, to thinking about the goals and situations surrounding the need to write. While professional writing still uses reports, white papers, etc., authors should approach these texts considering the rhetorical situation rather than considering documents as isolated work.

User-Centered Design


The idea of user-centered design includes the following concepts:

  • Always consider and think about your audience
  • Consider your readers based on:
    • their expectations. What information do your readers expect to get? What can be provided to your readers?
    • their characteristics. Who, specifically, is reading the work? Is the audience part of the decision making process? Will stakeholders read the work? Or is the audience a mixture of decision makers, stakeholders, and shadow readers? What organizational positions does the audience hold and how might this affect document expectations?
    • their goals. What are your readers planning to accomplish? What should be included in your documents so that your readers get the information they need?
    • their context. For what type of situation do the readers need this information?
  • Identify information readers will need and make that information easily accessible and understandable
    • User-centered documents must be usable, so consider how the document will be used rather than just how it will be read. For example, if a writer wants information regarding MLA formatting for an essay, s/he needs this information quickly in order to start work. The MLA information must be easily accessible, so the author can find, read, and understand it to begin writing
  • Make your documents persuasive (see Rhetorical Awareness above).

By adopting user-centered design, workplace writing focuses on the expectations, goals, situations, and needs of the readers. Closely related to user-centered design is participatory design, which aligns users with designers in a collaborative relationship.

See our Audience Analysis handout for more information on researching your readers.