Published on January 23, 2024
Over the next weeks and months, we will be highlighting award winners recognized by IEEE ProComm. This week’s interview is with Dr. Jason Tham, who is an Associate Professor of Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University. Tham is also the Assistant Chair of the English Department. His research interests include UX research and design, information design, instructional design, web publishing, digital rhetorics, design thinking approaches in technical communication, collaboration, and emerging technologies. Please see additional publications and collaborations at the end of this article. We thank Jason for contributing to this interview. You can reach out to him at email@example.com.
Traci Nathans-Kelly (TNK): Your paper titled “Pasts and Futures of Design Thinking: Implications for Technical Communication” was selected for the 2023 Joenk Award at IEEE ProComm. Tell us a bit about how you landed on this article’s topic, which I found very compelling as I was reading through it.
Jason Tham (JT): Thanks for the opportunity to share some background about this project! I have been writing about design thinking since I was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. As I research and learn about design thinking’s history, I noticed a somewhat skewed narrative about its origins. So, in this particular study, I compiled published literature from multiple venues to identify the most dominant narratives and those that were less influential.
Unsurprisingly, the oft-cited publications featured Anglo-American and Eurocentric stories about design thinking, with strong ties to utilitarianism and, lately, capitalism. The less-dominant narratives included women and those who aren’t conventionally seen as designers. These narratives shared a social advocacy orientation. I assumed the responsibility, then, to re-construct an antenarrative that highlights the perspectives forwarded by these less-dominant narratives, with hopes that it will inform future technical communicators who take up design thinking approaches in their work.
I felt this project was necessary because, even as academics, we often only follow the most popular story in a given discipline. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has warned us about the danger of a single story. When we don’t question the dominant stories circulated among the discourse community, we risk painting a biased picture to represent our methods or approaches or tools. So, this study was my attempt to start another trajectory for design thinking that confronts normativity, which in itself is characteristic of a design thinking mindset.
TNK: IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication found this work to be so noteworthy, given the target audience. How did you come to decide that this publication was the right fit for your work?
JT: My imagined audiences were technical communication scholars so I could have pursued a number of journals in the field. However, given that I have already placed articles about design thinking in places like Technical Communication Quarterly (2020), Journal of Business and Technical Communication (2019), and Journal of Technical Writing and Communication (2021, 2022), I was hoping to bring the conversation to IEEE-TPC, which did not yet have a central discussion about design thinking. Another reason for me to pursue Transactions was that I had a good experience publishing with it previously. Since I also serve as an associate editor and occasional reviewer for the journal, I feel confident about the requirements of publication.
TNK: What are the next steps related to this topic? Or, if you have moved on to another research path, what are you looking at now?
JT: I am still working to expand this topic. Let me talk about that in my answer to the next question. Other things I am working on concurrently are related to emerging technologies such as virtual reality user experience and generative artificial intelligence models. For example, I am collaborating with international scholars to study writers’ inventional and revision practices in VR environment. I am also a part of a research cluster that is examining best practices to develop AI literacy. And as a faculty fellow of outreach and engagement at my university, I am working to expand my knowledge and skills in community-engaged scholarship.
TNK: What is the “next big thing” in sight for your future research and writing?
JT: Following this publication, I have proposed a monograph that is now contracted with Routledge to examine the rhetoric, science, and technology of design thinking. This project dovetails the argument for antenarratives of design thinking. I aim to dig deeper into the rhetorical situation of design thinking. The project prefaces design thinking as a model for social innovation that is considerate of audience, requirements, stakes, costs, resources, and consequences.
Another book project I am working on is a co-edited volume (with Dr. Jialei Jiang) called Designing for Social Justice, to be published in the ATTW Book Series. This volume draws from design as an intentional practice to explore the ways in which design theories can be used to promote positive change in communities via community-engaged projects. Contributors to this collection demonstrate a myriad of strategies to illuminate the theoretical, ethical, and pedagogical dimensions of design-driven community projects.
TNK: What advice might you give someone considering getting their doctorate or doing research into similar topics?
JT: I think now is an opportune moment to study design-oriented methods and theories in technical communication due to the growing interest of scholars and practitioners in user experience (UX) studies and social justice advocacy. For anyone considering getting doctoral degree in technical or professional communication, or wanting to do research related to design thinking, I recommend reading and learning from multiple disciplines adjacent to design, such as human factors, information architecture, systems engineering, social innovation, and psychology, to name a few.
Thanks for allowing me to talk about my work here!
Biography: Dr. Jason Tham (PhD, University of Minnesota) is an Associate Professor of Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University and Assistant Chair of the English department. He teaches courses in UX research and design, information design, instructional design, web publishing, and digital rhetorics. He is a research partner with the Digital Life Institute at Ontario Tech University. His current research interests are design thinking approaches in technical communication, collaboration, and emerging technologies. He is author/co-author of 6 books––UX Writing: Designing User-Centered Content (2023, Routledge, with Tharon Howard and Gustav Verhulsdonck), Writing to Learn in Teams (2023, Parlor Press, with Joe Moses), Keywords in Design Thinking (2022, WAC Clearinghouse), Design Thinking in Technical Communication (2021, Routledge), Collaborative Writing Playbook (2021, Parlor Press, with Joe Moses), and Designing Technical & Professional Communication (2021, Routledge, with Deborah Andrews). Dr. Tham is currently the vice president of the Council for Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication and an associate editor of Technical Communication Quarterly and IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication.