A central puzzle that people face is how to make possible communication that is otherwise difficult, impossible, or unimagined. Communication design is a response to this puzzle. It happens when there is an intervention into some ongoing activity through the invention of techniques, devices, or procedures. Such interventions redesign interactivity and thus shape the possibilities for communication. Design is evident in the choices made about how people in relationships, groups, organizations, and communities will speak to and interact with each other. The purpose of design theory is to open up the intentional design of communication as an object of inquiry in order to advance knowledge about communication.
Design theory is most immediately a response to the accelerated capacity for communication by-design ushered in through advances in communication and information technology. Communication becomes an object of design when, for instance, people build web-based services such as forums for buying and exchanging goods and services, finding relational partners, or engaging in specialized discussions. Design theory also addresses the more generalized concern with the broad range of interests in the structuring, shaping, and disciplining of communication practice. Communication becomes an object of design across a range of settings such as when people determine the participants, topics, and decisions to be made at a meeting or when people decide who reports to whom about what so that an organization can run most effectively.
Aakhus and Jackson (2005) identify seven key insights from theory and research in language and social interaction that provide resources for investigating, understanding, and engaging in communication design: (1) turn-taking formats vary in the methods provided for generating and displaying relevant contributions; (2) participant identity and face concerns affect participation in any interaction format; (3) speech is a kind of action with collateral commitments; (4) speech act sequences are indefinitely expandable; (5) coordinated action depends on repair; (6) the consequences of design for practice are interactionally emergent; (7) communication is subject to culturally shared assumptions about communication.
Design theory is interested in what an intervention presupposes about communication and with what consequence the intervention is taken up in communicative practice. Interventions embody “hypotheses” about communication evident in choices about affordances and constraints for speaking and interacting such as turn-taking, turn types, topics, and the sequencing of acts. The communicative successes, failures, and surprises that result from interventions on speaking and interaction provide material for reflecting upon and theorizing communication. The accumulation of successful and unsuccessful interventions is a form of knowledge-building about communication.
Communication As Design
Communication design is often implicit in the work performed in society and taken for granted in the procedures and formats used by technologies, institutions, organizations, and communities. Design theory opens up the design of communication for inquiry in two general ways: (1) through the investigation of the communication design work that takes place in society and the designs for communication that emerge in society, and (2) by engaging in the practice of communication design and the development of design methodology.
Communication design work is evident in the interventions people make to realize preferred forms of interactivity and avoid non-preferred forms. For example, Jacobs and Aakhus (2002) examined the transcripts of divorce mediation sessions by looking at how the mediators treated the arguments made (or implied) by disputants. Their discourse analysis found that what mediators do with their words tends not to articulate the argumentative potential of what disputants say. Rather than resolving differences of opinion based on facts and shared values, disputes were managed in terms of the possibilities of striking a bargain or repairing identities. The mediators used their tools of practice (e.g., questions and summaries) to construct different types of discussion (e.g., bargaining, therapeutic, and critical discussion) as a way to manage the conflict among the parties.
Investigations of communication design work pay attention to the often taken-for-granted design work performed by people in a position to shape the communication experienced by others. These investigations make use of interviews, observations, and transcripts to articulate the tools, ideals, and knowledge of practitioner work. The analysis reconstructs the practical theory of communication evident in the conduct of intervention and the type of knowledge about and practice of communication cultivated in various forms of work and professional activity.
Designs for communication are evident in the procedures and formats available through technologies, organizations, institutions, and communities that provide affordances and constraints for interaction. These designs are solutions to communication problems and each solution varies in terms of its presumptions about how communication works and how it ought to work. For example, Aakhus (1999) examined the Science Court approach to resolving the disagreements that arise among experts and then complicate policy decision-making by non-experts. The analysis found that Science Court’s design-for-communication altered the way experts and non-experts interacted in policy decision-making but did not relieve decision-makers from the predicament of dependence on expert authority. The design recreated the dilemma of authority, ignored facilitating reasoning across domains of expert practice, and encouraged rational discussion on potentially trivial matters. When the Science Court was used to facilitate learning about science policy issues in public settings rather than as a tool for rendering a policy decision, however, its design was more relevant and effective.
There are, in principle, an unlimited number of designs for communication and these designs are distinguishable by considering what any procedure or format implemented by an institution, technology, organization, or community presupposes about communication. Investigations of designs for communication articulate the affordances and constraints of various designs by examining artifacts, observing implementations, interviewing developers, and collecting user assessments. The analysis reconstructs what the design presupposes about communication and how this resonates with the communicative practices and communication values of those participating in the social setting.
The study of design work and designs for communication uses the insights of language and social interaction theory and research. It draws from approaches such as micro-ethnography, ethnography of speaking, discourse analysis, and conversation analysis to examine how communication is made an object of design and with what consequences. While the focus is on micro-matters, a direction that design theory could develop is understanding the formation, maintenance, and dissolution of broader patterns and structures in society such as networks of influence, political communication, media systems, and organizational communication.
Reflective Practice And Design
The reflective practice of communication design involves a designer using communication concepts, theories, and methods to work out how to make forms of communication possible in particular circumstances through intervention and invention. For example, Jackson (2002) developed web-based instructional support using argumentation theory to devise formats that facilitate learning. The structured online protocols were created based on research demonstrating that the expression and management of disagreement facilitates learning. The key design features of these protocols were developed using the concepts of “repair” and “preference for agreement” from conversation analysis and the theory of conversational argument. The protocols help participants in the online discussion overcome various argument suppressors such as authority dependence, peer pressure, and passivity.
Communication design is a reflective practice that uses communication concepts, theories, and methods to conceptualize design, examine the context of intervention, and analyze outcomes for redesign. When approached as a reflective practice, communication design ascertains the value of communication concepts, theories, and methods by discovering whether these aspects of communication theory help solve actual problems experienced in the world. Communication concepts realize their value when the concepts enable designers to determine relevant interventions and inventions. Communication research methods and techniques realize their value when the method or technique enables the designer to reflect on the situation at hand to detect surprises, flaws, and opportunities for redesign.
Communication design as a reflective practice also develops design methodology. A design methodology is a strategy for operating in any circumstance of intervention from a design stance. For example, Aakhus (in press) describes how he developed a web-based system to support experiential learning in the workplace. The methodology involved several steps. First, he observed and assessed current communication practices relative to the educational goals. Second, he developed an idealized model of interaction – the conversation for reflection – that, in principle, would realize the educational goals. The model was based on a theory of reflective inquiry and on empirical research on accounting behavior and disagreement management. Third, he used the model to determine the specific types of communication support needed, such as the types of turns and roles of participation required for the interaction. Fourth, he created a web-based support system to realize the idealized model in the practical circumstance. Finally, the implementation was monitored to identify opportunities for redesign and ways to better conceptualize and model the required interaction.
Methodologies for communication design address the relationship between ideals for communication and knowledge about how communication works. Since much communication theory and research either focuses on how communication ought to work or on how communication works, design theory addresses an important gap in the discipline. Design theory draws on two related approaches to methodology from the area of language and social interaction that engage both the empirical and normative dimensions of communication. Jackson (2002) has worked out the components of a normatively pragmatic design methodology: an empirical examination of discourse practices, a critical analysis based on comparison of practices with an ideal model, a specification of designable features, and a proposed redesign. Tracy’s (2005) action-implicative discourse analysis is a related alternative for integrating normative and empirical insights. This approach seeks to articulate normative beliefs, rather than starting with a given normative model, and aims to generate reflection on those beliefs and their consequences for action.
Engaging in design and developing design methodology draw upon the insights of language and social interaction research to formulate design processes for communication. Design theory is a unique complement to the traditional empirical and critical modes of theory in the communication discipline. Design theory brings communication studies into contact with the broad interdisciplinary area of design studies such as that found in architecture, urban planning policy, human–computer interaction, and computersupported cooperative work.
- Aakhus, M. (1999). Science court: A case study in designing discourse to manage policy controversy. Knowledge, Technology, and Policy, 2(3), 20 –37.
- Aakhus, M. (2001). Technocratic and design stances toward communication expertise: How GDSS facilitators understand their work. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 29, 341–371.
- Aakhus, M. (in press). Conversations for reflection: Augmenting transitions and transformations in expertise. To appear in R. Day & C. McInerney (eds.), Rethinking KM: From knowledge management to knowledge processes. Amsterdam: Kluwer.
- Aakhus, M., & Jackson, S. (2005). Technology, interaction, and design. In K. Fitch & R. Sanders (eds.), Handbook of language and social interaction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 411– 436.
- Jackson, S. (2002). Designing argumentation protocols for the classroom. In F. H. van Eemeren (ed.), Advances in pragma-dialectics. Amsterdam: SICSAT, pp. 105 –120.
- Jacobs, S., & Aakhus, M. (2002). What mediators do with words: Implementing three models of rational discussion in dispute mediation. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 20(4), 177–204.
- Jacobs, S., & Jackson, S. (2006). Derailments of argumentation: It takes two to tango. In P. Houtlosser & A. van Rees (eds.), Considering Pragma-Dialectics. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 121–134.
- Moor, A. de, & Aakhus, M. (2006). Argument support: From technologies to tools. Communications of the ACM, 49(3), 93–98.
- Tracy, K. (2005). Reconstructing communicative practice: Action-implicative discourse analysis. In K. Fitch & R. Sanders (eds.), Handbook of language and social interaction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 301–324.a