Archive for the 'usability' Category

Well-designed user help takes consumer from concerned to confident

There are a variety of reasons for purchasing a new printer, but a likely one is that your old one has just kicked the bucket, leaving you in a jam with a project awaiting completion. This, of course, means you might be a bit agitated as you head out in search of a replacement.

Before leaving, you might read reviews of printer models online. That does not help your mood as people write mostly about problems and disappointments. But, with an idea of the features you want, some brand names, a price range, and low expectations, you venture off to a retailer and make a selection. After you bring the machine home, the goal is to get back in business independently, with no problems, and complete your project.

A couple of years ago, this was my situation, and I purchased a Canon Pixma MX452 All-In-One (printer-copier-fax machine). Now, I am far from tech-savvy, and I was worried because the online reviews were less than stellar. However, it turns out that setup was a breeze. (So much so that recently I bought another Canon printer for my college-bound son.) Within 30 minutes — and with what seemed like little effort on my part — the printer was “talking” to the desktop computer, the iPads, and the kids’ school laptops. Wow, did my mood — and confidence level — change for the better.

Where to Start

The key to my satisfaction was the Canon “Getting Started” guide. This document describes the steps needed to physically set up the printer, start the control panel, and get it communicating with computers through a wireless connection. Find the document online here:

The guide is effective because it uses an obvious title, detailed illustrations, just enough language, well-ordered steps, and a commonsense layout.

Starting with the title, “Getting Started” seems adequate to indicate this is the first guide to read, and to ensure consumers don’t launch into one of the other three pamphlets that come in the box. The guide also says “Read me first!” at the top, and it has the e-mail address and the toll-free number for tech support as the first paragraph. That is a convenient place so you don’t waste time looking all over the guide trying to remember where you saw that information. Figure 1 below shows the features I describe here.


Figure 1: The cover of the guide makes clear where to start and where to get technical help.

Well-described illustrations

The guide is clear and simple, with few colors but detailed illustrations. Most importantly, there is enough wording to adequately describe the action in the illustrations. Sometimes, in an attempt to be multilingual, user guides rely too heavily on illustrations and do not have verbiage to clarify the actions (reference some kids’ meal toys, which, made for a worldwide audience, do not include words in the assembly instructions). This guide has just enough wording.

Steps and substeps are clearly numbered, with one sentence for each step. In each black-and-white illustration, the part of the printer that is being addressed is emphasized in gray. In cases where a detail is small, there are zoomed in boxes showing what cannot be seen, down to the shape of a plug. See Figure 2 below.


Figure 2: Zoom-in boxes show hidden details

The guide is readable and not cumbersome, partially thanks to the fact it is printed in just two languages, English and Spanish. When multiple languages are accommodated, the type size tends to get very small and the paper gets quite large, like a car map that you can never fold correctly again.

Makes no assumptions

The layout has an orderly flow, so you can tell where to start and where to look next. In addition, the guide does not presume that a user has set up a printer before or that a user might understand a direction because he or she has done it in the past. Every step is explained with illustrations and words, including tips that are highlighted in pink.

Tips might try to prevent you from doing something you might assume is the next step. For example, Step 1.5 says, “Connect the power cord.” Then it says, “Do not connect the USB cable yet.” Or they might give more detail about what you see. For example, Step 1.7 says, “Select your language then press the OK button.” Then it says, “To change the language setting, press the Back button.”

Once the actions in this guide are complete, the final step instructs you to insert the CDROM into the computer and follow the onscreen directions to complete set-up. Installing the software takes just a few minutes and you are back in business. (For computers or laptops that don’t have a CD player, you go online to complete set-up.)

This Canon Getting Started Guide certainly can be a role model for other guides. It keeps the home user in mind, with simple sentences that adequately describe the action in the illustrations. The physical size of the guide is manageable and not convoluted by too many languages, and the layout progression is clear. This guide made me a happy, confident consumer.

By Deborah Bennick, EH-501, Oct. 15, 2017


Writing User Help for Older Users

Facebook’s users are getting older. A recent report found an 80% increase in users over age 55. The effects of this change are reverberating, and it’s not just that teenagers are fleeing Facebook like rats off an aging ship. This older demographic may require different approaches to user help. And that’s why the internet has seen a rise in videos like this one helping seniors adjust to the site:

Facebook isn’t alone. The number of older computer users is growing dramatically. In response, companies like HP have designed technology specifically for older users. And several businesses and non-profits, including one founded by this enterprising San Francisco teen, devote their time to helping seniors learn and use technology.

Gail Lippincott argues that “Technical communicators can play a crucial role in meeting the needs of this growing audience of aging adults by acting as user advocates for accessible documentation and interface design.” This requires understanding how older users might approach and use instructions. Considering research that older users are much more likely to reference a manual, this understanding becomes even more important. While many researchers caution against stereotyping all seniors, they have also uncovered some general tips for writing manuals catered to older users:

  • Consider Formatting: While many seniors are in terrific physical health, others need formatting accommodations to improve a manual’s usability. Larger type, easily-turned pages, and fewer distracting elements can help many users. Demiris, Finkelstein, and Speedie provide several recommendations for accommodating elderly users in web design, and many of their suggestions–such as limiting colors, providing several methods for completing tasks, and providing several ways of getting assistance–apply to user help as well, especially when it’s online. W3Schools also provides accessibility guidelines for older users.
  • Increase User Confidence and Motivation: Older users may assume that they just won’t get new technologies. While watching older people use digital products, researchers Abdusselam Cifter and Hua Dong observed that many weren’t motivated to complete the task and blamed themselves for the failure. Manuals that provide extra cues to increase motivation and confidence can help. Nicole Loorbach, Joyce Karreman, and Michael Steehouder found that adding “confidence” elements to a manual increased the number of tasks users could complete and improved their persistence when facing a difficult task. In the study, confidence elements included a section labeled “No prior knowledge of skills required” to convince users that they, like millions before them, could master the task. The manual also offered strategies for reading the manual and included steps helping users check the success of their work.
  • Provide More Context: Older users may need context that younger users take for granted, such as the purposes of technologies and particular tasks. Patricia Robinson writes, “Older users may not automatically fill in missing information that is obvious to younger users,” partially because their thinking patterns are based on “older technological models.” Technical communicators may need to provide additional information or explain metaphors and processes that might be confusing.
  • Involve the Audience: There’s no better to meet users’ needs than to get them involved. Consulting with seniors and testing documentation with them can only improve the product. Plus, it helps companies avoid patronizing older users by creating user help with titles like “Manual for Seniors Scared of Technology!”

As the blog Workplace Writing argues, businesses can’t afford to ignore seniors. And if they can’t get good help using new technologies, they won’t use them.

Employees Know About Usability Than We Think

In Usability Testing Essentials: Ready, Set,… Test!, Carol Barnum lists several great sources for internal information about users:

  • Technical Support/Customer Support
  • Training for Internal/Customer Use
  • Technical Communicators
  • Sales and Field Support

All these sources are helpful, but a recent experience convinced me that an even wider group of employees may posses powerful, but overlooked, usability information.

I placed an order for pictures on the Walgreens website, but when I arrived an hour later to pick them up, they weren’t ready.

“The order wasn’t placed,” the photo clerk informed me.

“But I placed an order,” I responded.

“You have to submit the order. A lot of people don’t notice that,” he responded.

And when I looked at the site again, he was (not surprisingly) right. I had missed a “submit” button at the bottom of a “Review and Submit Your Order” screen. Maybe the employee was just trying to make me feel better, but from the sound of it, he often encounters customers who make the same mistake. Here in my local Walgreens sits an employee with valuable usability insight worth time and effort to customers and money to Walgreens. Presumably, some of the customers who forget to submit will not repeat the order later. Also, they take up time when customer lines are long and frustrate already overworked employees.

While it’s unrealistic to expect companies to survey every employee for usability insight, it’s equally realistic than many of the on-the-ground, lower-level employees possess a wealth of usability expertise about their company’s products (and this includes employees beyond the Sales and Field Support that Barnum lists). The ultimate solution is finding efficient ways to gather to this insight and providing motivation to employees to share their knowledge. But the first step is for usability professionals to recognize that employees possess this knowledge is the first place.


Thinking about Iterative Usability Testing as Revising

Last week, while preparing to give a presentation to a group of students, I encountered a problem. When I logged into my favorite online presentation editor, I discovered that the interface had changed almost completely.  There were unrecognizable menus across the top of the screen, and the buttons and menus I was used to were no longer there. I experienced a brief moment of panic. I had to present the next day: how was I going to learn a completely new interface AND complete a presentation visual in less than twenty-four hours? Fortunately for me, a banner appeared at the top of the screen offering me the option to switch back to the “classic” version, at least temporarily. I could create the presentation I needed using the version I already knew and come back later when I had more time to learn the new interface. Not every user is so lucky when it comes to other software or websites.

My potential panic could have been prevented if the developers of the online presentation software had utilized the concept of iterative usability testing. Dr. Jeff Bacha, a professor of technical communication at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, gave a lecture this week at the University of Alabama in Huntsville advocating “In-context” usability studies, and he touched briefly on iterative usability testing as a method of producing more efficient products–and subsequently happier users.

What exactly is iterative usability testing? Iterative usability testing differs slightly from traditional usability testing. In traditional usability testing, usability experts observe users as the users interact with the product after it has been completed or nearly completed. In iterative usability testing, users are offered the chance to evaluate the product throughout its development. In other words, as small changes are made to the product (the software, website, etc.), users are asked to evaluate the product and the specific changes that have been made. When I think about iterative usability testing, I like to compare it to the writing process. To adopt a writing term that many people may be familiar with, iterative usability testing is, essentially, revising. When we write a document, we draft, ask readers for feedback, make changes, and ask for feedback again. We may go through the process half a dozen times or more, producing slightly different–and hopefully improved–drafts each time. Iterative usability testing is a similar process undertaken for a product such as software or a website. The developer makes small changes to a software program or website, asks users for feedback, and takes their concerns into account when making changes to the next version.

In the diagram below, I illustrate the similarities between the two processes. The first stage of both processes is the creation of an initial version of the document or product, a “first draft,” as it were. In the second stage, the product is tested by users (or the document is read by readers) and feedback is collected. In the third stage, that feedback is incorporated into the document or product. In other words, the product or document is revised in order to reflect user/reader concerns. This results in the fourth stage of the document, the new “draft.” I do not say the final draft, because in writing and in iterative usability testing alike, each draft is sent again to readers and users for additional feedback, for as many “revising loops” as time and resources allow before a final version is produced.

The key to successful iterative usability testing is incremental change: if the changes to the product are too drastic, users may be overwhelmed and become unable to point out specific, fixable issues. Take the case of my interaction with the online presentation editor as an example. If the developers had not offered me the alternative to revert to the previous version of the controls, I would have quickly become frustrated, because I didn’t have time to spend on learning the new system right then. In all likelihood, I would have abandoned the editor altogether and gone back to a familiar system like PowerPoint, at least for the project at hand. On the other hand, if, instead of changing the interface all at once, the developers had changed things little by little, asking me along the way (through email surveys or on-site polls) which changes I liked and which ones I didn’t, my potential for frustration would have been greatly reduced.

Iterative usability testing, then, is useful in one respect because it prevents user frustration. However, it is also useful for developers; in the long run, it can save time. Incremental usability testing provides developers with user feedback throughout the development process so that they can tailor the product to the user’s needs. Finding out which features users actually use and which ones they dislike can direct the development process more efficiently. The developers won’t waste time making major changes that users neither need nor want.

Thinking of iterative usability testing in the same way writers think about revising could help developers prioritize their incremental changes. There’s no need to waste time working on an introduction to a document if readers think the draft is fine as it is; instead, the developer can focus on problem areas that will actually improve the reader’s experience. Likewise, there’s no need to work on changing the appearance of the forum on a website if user input shows that nobody actually wants to use the forum.

If the developers of the online presentation editor I was using had asked me, I would have told them that the menu interface was fine as it was. I didn’t need them to make changes to a system I already knew. Perhaps the developers have added new features or reduced the number of clicks it takes to add a YouTube video link to my presentation; I haven’t had time to go exploring in the new version yet. Whether it turns out that I like the new version better or not, the occasion did serve to remind me that when it comes to making changes to something, whether it be a document or a digital product, it’s important to keep the user’s needs first. And how do I find out what users need? I have to ask them—again and again—until I get it right.

–Bonnie Winstel

Content Strategy Useful?

No one ever said, “I want to be a content strategist when I grow up,” because the job didn’t exist until the 2000s. Managing content was never an issue until the web exploded with various ways to obtain information.  Today, some technical writers are honing their skills and becoming content strategists.

The concept of content strategy was a mystery to me until recently. As a young professional in the 21st century, I’ve had to utilize many different types of media not only to obtain a job, but to maintain one as well. In order to be competitive in the job market – no matter your age – being knowledgeable in using media to accomplish a specific task is a necessity. Whether it’s a website, blog, or social media, there is always a need for content, but is it good content? Is it useful? Is it relevant?  

The buzz for content strategy was started by Kristina Havlorson in her article, The Discipline of Content Strategy. She defines content strategy as a plan for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.

As technical communicators, it’s not enough to simply communicate in a clear and concise manner.  It’s important that the information is usable as it’s presented. Before the web, technical writers only had to worry about publishing information in one form. Today, the same content can be distributed among several different avenues; the content may be the same, but it needs to cater to the specific outlet used. This is important because if the content isn’t usable, it’s useless. This problem can be avoided with a content strategy.

A content strategy isn’t just a plan or schedule; it’s a strategy for ongoing maintenance and sustainable growth. John Eckman, a digital strategist, defines it best: “Strategy is using limited resources to accomplish a goal.” Companies are investing in content strategies to save time and money in the long run. For example, if a company launches a website but never updates the content or adapts to changes in the work culture, it will no longer be relevant and therefore useless. Customers can’t use the information and the company loses business. With a strategy that maintains content, this will not happen, and since it has been planned out from the beginning, the company doesn’t have to worry about making changes —  it happens naturally. That’s just one example of how content strategy can be effective. There are so many different aspects of content strategy that can be pivotal to the successful execution of content that I can’t even begin to discuss them here, but just know that having a strategy gives the content a boost. Having a strategy from the beginning ensures the use of the content is more likely to be successful.

If you aren’t in the position to practice content strategy in your career, it can be mastered in your everyday life.  Think about it, if you have a blog or social media account you are distributing content to represent you or your ideas. We naturally organize our Facebook statuses and Twitter posts, but how much more successful could we be at conveying the message we want if we strategized? How many more blog views could we get if we strategized the how and when content is delivered?

Try it out. For more ideas on using content strategy in social media, check out The 4-Step Social Media Content Strategy.

Users do the darndest things

Here’s a great post from A Tech Writer’s World titled “Our Unpreditable Users,” about the often unexpected responses users have to documents and products, and the steps designers have taken to respond to user behavior. The post is a great reminder that user behavior, even when it is surprising or seems to be irrational, is the ultimate guide in designing documents and products. Over on the blog Design with Intent, Dan Lockton offers several cognitive strategies designers use to influence behavior.

Also, Snopes verifies the Van Halen Brown M&M anecdote discussed in the Tech Writing World post. And you thought they were just being divas…

Usability Stockholm Syndrome and User Testing in the Wild

Despite the value of usability testing in a lab, the practice has many limitations and critics, especially because using equipment in a lab is so different from the everyday experiences of users. While the immediate assumption is that using equipment in the foreign, potentially off-putting environment of the lab might bias users towards disliking a product, Jensen Harris argues that usability labs create a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, where users sympathize with their test-administering captors. That’s one reason why more companies like Firefox are conducting user testing “in the wild,” leaving the lab to seek out users in their natural habitats. Those interested in the practice can check out this free archived seminar from Dana Chisnell, a leading advocate of “in the wild” testing.