Workflow Thinking and Purposeful Friction – Ryan Boren

By stepping away from the familiar and searching for potential friction points, however, a writer can better understand how particular tools or formats shape and structure their work.

Source: Writing Workflows | Chapter 1

I’m a few chapters in and enjoying the pre-peer review draft of “Writing Workflows: Beyond Word Processing”. It looks at the workflows of three writers who work like I do: Markdown, plain text, and lots of automation and tool experimentation.

The book “introduces the concepts of workflow and workflow thinking as a way to describe, analyze, and share mediated approaches to writing and knowledge work.” I like their “workflow thinking” concept. I’ll work it into my post on Writing in Education and Plain Text Flow where I advocate for plain text and a workflow approach to writing in education.

From our participants’ practices we draw the concept of workflow thinking-the act of reading knowledge work as modular and intertwined with technologies. Workflow thinking allows our participants to break any given project into a series of shorter process steps-a perspective that is well in line with rhetoric and composition’s understanding of process and its typical pedagogical practices. Workflow thinking, however, foregrounds the mediated nature of that work. It looks at each task or component and asks a question of the writing technologies and available affordances within that component: “Through which technologies will I accomplish this task? Why? What does a change in technologies offer here?” For our participants, a shift in these practices might afford them mobility or the removal of drudgery or new ways of seeing a problem or new invention strategies. In each case, however, they are able to use this mediated and modular thinking to reevaluate when and how they approach knowledge work.

This book offers workflow thinking as a counterpoint to contemporary discussions of digital writing technologies-particularly in regards to the increasing prominence of institutional software. As more universities sign on to site licenses for platforms like Office 365 and Google Apps for Education, and as more students and faculty become comfortable with working within those applications, writers risk a “cementing” of practice-a means through which writing tasks begin and end in institutionally-sanctioned software because it is free or pre-installed or institutionally available or seen as a shared software vocabulary. A lens of workflow thinking pushes against this, instead asking “what are the component pieces of this work?” and “how is this mediated?” and “what might a shift in mediation or technology afford me in completing this?” In short, we see workflow thinking as a way to reclaim agency and to push against institutionally-purchased software defaults. This perspective has origins in early humanities computing (particularly in 1980s research on word processors), as we will more fully discuss later in this chapter.

Source: Writing Workflows | Chapter 1

I also like their concept of friction, particularly purposeful friction.

In offering the concept of workflow thinking, we diverge from the business & systems-focused concept of the workflow (one that is often used by our participants) in suggesting that workflow thinking should not privilege efficiency above all else. Just as there are compelling outcomes to automating a mundane computing task via a program or script, there are also compelling outcomes to purposefully introducing constraints to a modular workflow component—for example, writing a draft in crayon (Wysocki, 2004)—and purposefully introducing friction into process.

Source: Writing Workflows | Introduction

These writers are constantly reexamining their processes, looking at the potential of mediating technologies, and searching for friction-places where they think there’s a better way to accomplish a task, where they find unnecessary steps in a process, or where they describe software as getting in their way. Workflows allow them to search for and eliminate friction, better matching writing tools to the writer’s affective preferences and creating new ways of seeing and doing knowledge work.

The concept of friction offers one possible explanation for Word’s ascent and the general disappearance of word processing research. Friction is most noticeable when first adopting a new piece of software, as each task seems to take longer than it should. Once software is familiar and process is routinized, friction fades to the background. And once it seems normal, a specific use case isn’t frictional-it’s simply the way the software works. Over time, that friction melds into a user’s everyday interaction with the computer. (This is one way in which our participants deviate from typical computing patterns; they seek out and read for moments of friction.)

Word’s familiarity and ubiquity means that many writers can use it without problem; any perceived friction recedes to the background as a part of a typical use case. This familiarity serves a purpose, “as people prefer their technologies transparent: they do not like to think about the features of their word processors any more than they like to think about shifting gears in an automobile, and they prefer to look through a given technology to the task at hand” (Haas, 1996, p. 25). The narrowing of the word processor market facilitated this perspective-moving (to follow Haas’s analogy) writing software from a manual to automatic transmission. Today, many writers open Word, step on the gas, and go. Moving out of this mindset, as Haas argues, “entail[s] looking at, rather than through, the literacy technologies we use every day. This will be difficult, and indeed not always practical. In the conduct of most work it is important to be able to treat technology transparently; after all, we have classes to teach, books to write, and children to raise” (p. 23). Said simply: To study friction is to reintroduce friction into writing. Word became transparent and useful, and the word processor lost its luster as an object of inquiry.

For participants in the workflow affinity space, searching for friction means identifying and eliminating moments when software gets in the way. They might recommend that writers step back from familiar software and consider how friction has become normalized in day-to-day use cases.

Word will appear to be a frictionless technology until Word is no longer a readily available tool. Then, when Word files aren’t easy to open, friction will reappear. By stepping away from the familiar and searching for potential friction points, however, a writer can better understand how particular tools or formats shape and structure their work.

There is also a way to see friction as generative by purposefully introducing it to one’s process through difficult or troublesome technologies. This approach to friction departs from the efficiency-minded priorities of the writers we profile in this book, but it aligns well with the creative and inventive priorities of many writing pedagogies. This might look something like Anne Wysocki’s (2004) writing assignment that suggests instructors “give students a short (1-2 page) writing assignment-and then ask them to turn in the assignment written in crayon (any color or colors) on any paper” (p. 27). Crayons, in an academic context, are pure friction; they are difficult to work with, they smear, they can look messy or unprofessional, and they subvert expectations. However, the friction imposed by crayons might help a writer better understand mediation and see their work in a new way. This friction can be inventive and productive, and it aligns with Marcus’s invisible writing exercise: Swapping monitors won’t help a writer produce a polished draft, but it might help them generate ideas or see their work in new ways. It is purposeful friction.

Source: Writing Workflows | Chapter 1

In the introduction, the authors ask a question I’ve wondered about regarding the continued dominance of page-based word processing in education while so many hackerswritersscientists, and screenwriters are using Markdown, a now 14 year old technology.

At the 2013 Computers & Writing conference, we (Derek & Tim) started talking about the broad Markdown affinity space: Podcasts, blogs, self-published books, and social media conversations. We were particularly interested in the absence of these conversations within our field. How could a nearly ten-years-old writing technology continue to grow in professional and enthusiast spaces but also be largely absent among those who teach and research writing?

Source: Writing Workflows | Introduction

I put some of my favorite quotes from the book on my microblog. I’ll add more as I proceed through the book and digest.

Source: Workflow Thinking and Purposeful Friction – Ryan Boren



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