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Documentation Usability: A Few Things I’ve Learned from Watching Users

Even though your customers may not read manuals, your tech support team probably does, which means someone is reading the manuals and using them to help others. But if your users find it easier to call someone, wait on hold for an agent, and then ask the agent a question rather than find the answer in the help, maybe your help materials aren’t very usable. Maybe increasing the usability of your company’s documentation could alleviate the need users feel to seek answers from another source.

Johnson, Tom H. I'd Rather Be Writing (2009). Articles>Documentation>Usability>User Centered Design


Heading Frequency and Comprehension: Studies of Print Versus Online Media   (PDF)

This paper describes a study that examined the effect of heading frequency on comprehension and perceptions of information presented in print versus online text. Results indicated that heading frequency did not differentially affect the comprehension of readers of print text while it did differentially affect the comprehension of readers of online texts who had considerably lower comprehension scores with text that had high frequency versus medium frequency headings.

Spyridakis, Jan H., Laura D. Schultz and Alexandra L. Bartell. STC Proceedings (2005). Articles>Document Design>Writing>Usability


Headline Line Breaks

Breaking up isn’t hard to do – just do it right so you don’t lose face. Learn why making the right line breaks in display type is essential for good looks and good sense.

Strizver, Ilene. Upper and lowercase Magazine (2008). Articles>Document Design>Typography>Usability


Help! User Documentation that Works

If you work on a new-concept website—that is, a website that doesn’t follow an established format like an ecommerce site or a blog—producing user documentation might be the last task on your mind. Yet for sites that present processes unfamiliar to users, quality documentation is crucial.

Laidlaw, Georgina. SitePoint (2010). Articles>Web Design>Usability>Documentation


If It’s Not Easy to Use, It’s Not Used

Debates about Microsoft Word vs. Adobe Framemaker appear with regular frequency on the tech-writing mailing lists I am subscribed to. Everyone agrees Frame is an awesome publishing tool. Yet, everyone keeps cribbing about it. So, why does a bright bunch of people who are masters at figuring out stuff, otherwise known as tech-writers, only hesitatingly agree Frame is “kind of great”? I think it’s mostly because Frame is so difficult to use.

Info Developer (2008). Articles>Document Design>Software>Usability


The Kind of Documentation Users Really Want

Have you ever asked your users what kind of training materials they want, or how they prefer to learn software? This kind of information is critical to figuring out what help deliverables to produce. But really when it comes down to it, there are only so many options — printed manuals, short guides, interactive flash guides, videos, online help, live training, reference cards, context-sensitive help, workbooks and exercises, or, usually the favorite, someone to stand by their computer and answer questions whenever they need help.

Johnson, Tom H. I'd Rather Be Writing (2008). Articles>Documentation>Usability>User Centered Design


Kindle Content Design

Writing for Kindle is like writing for print, the Web, and mobile devices combined; optimal usability means optimizing content for each platform's special characteristics.

Nielsen, Jakob. Alertbox (2009). Articles>Document Design>Usability>Online


Label Placement in Austrian Forms, with Some Lessons for English Forms

I don’t want to take the simplistic view that culture aligns with language or country, but I have observed some cultural differences in forms.

Jarrett, Caroline. UXmatters (2010). Articles>Document Design>Usability>Forms


Leaded or Unleaded?

Leading is the space between lines of type. Technically, leading is measured from baseline to baseline. The default leading for body text is approximately 120 percent of the point size of the type. But the default isn’t always appropriate. If fact, it’s rarely appropriate.

Opsteegh, Michael. Putting Your Best Font Forward (2010). Articles>Document Design>Typography>Usability


Little Machines: Understanding Users Understanding Interfaces   (peer-reviewed)   (members only)

This paper questions the ubiquitous practice of supplying minimalist information to users, of making that information functional only, of assuming that the Shannon-Weaver communication model should govern online systems, and of ignoring the social implications of such a stance. Help systems that provide fast, temporary solutions without providing any background information lead to the danger of users completing tasks that they do not understand at all. (Word will help us write a legal pleading, even if we have no idea what one is.) As a result, we have help systems that attempt to be invisible and to provide tool instruction but not conceptual instruction. Such a system presents itself as a neutral tool, but it is actually an incomplete environment, denying both the complexity and alternative (and possibly improved) modes of thinking about the subject at hand.

Johnson-Eilola, Johndan. Journal of Computer Documentation (2001). Articles>Documentation>User Centered Design>Usability


Merging Usability Practices with Document Design and Development   (PDF)   (members only)

Examines the phases of document development and describes how to incorporate them with usability techniques to ensure that your information products remain continually useful and valuable.

Filippo, Elizabeth G. Intercom (2007). Articles>Document Design>Usability


Organizing Content 8: Second-Level Faceted Navigation

Peter Morville and Jeffery Callendar, two information architects, call faceted navigation “arguably the most significant search innovation of the past decade.” Because of its importance in content findability, one aspect I want to now explore further is a second-level faceted browsing system.

Johnson, Tom H. I'd Rather Be Writing (2010). Articles>Information Design>Usability>Documentation


Practice Human Factors for Document Design   (PDF)

Writers of performance- and response-oriented documents, such as instructions, procedures, proposals, and grant applications, need to consider the interaction of human factors with conventional document design factors such as accessibility, readability, legibility, consistency, style, language, and suitability to audience. This session explores that relationship, based upon a summation and synthesis of previous Annual Conference presentations as modulated by this presenter's extensive technical communication experience. It will be of particular interest to newcomers to the profession who seek to broaden their grasp of its intricacies.

Peterson, Dart G., Jr. STC Proceedings (1993). Articles>Document Design>Usability


User-Driven Documentation: From Usability Testing to User Guide   (PDF)

Rockwell Software is a $90-million company specializing in plant automation software. Offices in West Allis, Wisconsin, and Mayfield Village, Ohio allow technical communicators to work closely with development teams to design, test, and release usable, consistent software and information products. While Rockwell Software’s information development process is a multi-faceted endeavor, this paper focuses on the following three steps we implement to create our information products: interviewing customers to establish information guidelines, conducting usability tests, and writing Getting Results guides.

Butler, Scott A., Jennifer L. Giordano and Myron M. Shawala III. STC Proceedings (1999). Articles>Documentation>User Centered Design>Usability


User-Guide-Driven Development

In my work with Bumblebee I use an approach I call 'User-Guide-Driven Development,' or UGDD for short. The mechanics of UGDD is similar to that of Test-Driven Development (TDD), but before I write the test for a feature, I write a snippet of the user guide describing the feature I am about to implement.

Brolund, Daniel. Thoughts of a Goldfish (2008). Articles>Documentation>Usability>User Centered Design


Webpage Layout: Right Hand Side Blindness

In several recent websites we have user tested, the site designers have placed important task critical links and information on the right hand side (RHS) of three column page layouts. The user testing was conclusive, users ignore any information presented on the RHS. We think this is a similar effect to the well documented banner blindness. It is essential to ensure that import links or information is not positioned on the RHS as they will surely be ignored.

Frontend Infocentre (2009). Articles>Web Design>Document Design>Usability


When Products Become Easy to Use, What's Next for Writers?

People who follow the right trends will someday lead them. Such an opportunity now lies in the hands of technical writers, as the computer field moves toward standardized, graphical, easy-to-use interfaces.

Oram, Andrew. Boston Broadside (1991). Articles>Usability>User Centered Design>Documentation


Why Technical Communicators and Usability?

Why technical communicators and usability? Both writers and software development managers have asked me that question. In both cases, it springs from a narrow view of communicators as 'just writers.' It is a point of view that fails to see the many activities, from learning the subject matter to organizing the information or creating good document design, that are hidden behind that final task of writing the words.

Quesenbery, Whitney. STC Usability SIG (2000). Articles>TC>Document Design>Usability


Your Document Covers the Facts, But Does It Keep ’Em Coming Back?   (PDF)

Much technical documentation merely describes the features or appearance of a product or service, leaving readers uninspired and disinterested. In fact, much of what we write probably never gets read. A combined audience, task, and benefits analysis can help us communicate why a user should do a task—not just how to do it.

Fritz, Anne, Jason R. Huntington, Bruce Knorr, and Judith Leetham. STC Proceedings (1995). Articles>Document Design>Usability

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