y Mary Wise, Manugistics, President of STC
Reprinted from Usability Interface, Vol 6, No. 3, January 2000
Once upon a time, I was a circus clown. One of the things I noticed about circus performers was that they are always practicing and always learning. Why? Because audiences demand acts that delight them. Therefore, to keep their routines fresh and interesting to themselves as well as to the audience, performers are always learning something new, something more difficult, or something fresh.
You, as a technical communicator, need to have the same passion for adding new tricks to your performance. A great place to start is with usability: design, testing, and analysis. Why? If you make sure that your documents are well written, doesn’t that automatically make them usable? Of course not. Well-written documents are simply that—well written. Your prose may be technically accurate, clear, and succinct, but if people can’t find it, or don’t know about it, or if it documents a hard-to-use product, then no one will use it. As Judy Glick-Smith says: “It’s communication, not literature.” To make that communication useful, you need to determine how, when, and why users read it.
Getting involved in usability not only ensures that our documents meet the needs of our readers, but it also gives us an entrée into product design and development. Usability applies to products as much as it applies to documents, and you can use your experience with documentation usability to ensure that products are usable too. How? Well, first you have to “do” usability. Start small: take a document you have written, grab a co-worker, friend, or even a family member, and conduct a usability test. Put your subject in front of the product, hand over the document, and stand back and watch. You’ll learn a lot, not only about your document, but also about the product! Record your observations and share them.
Then, expand your scope. Make testing part of every documentation plan. Talk about it, learn how to do it, and do it. And guess what? You’ll have a new trick for your act that translates into usable documents, a new line for your resume, and who knows? Maybe your next, better job!