by Whitney Quesenbery, Cognetics Corporation and Helena Mentis, Virginia Tech
Reprinted from Usability Interface, Vol 6, No. 3, January 2000
At the STC 1999 Annual Conference, attendees of usability related sessions participated in a survey investigating some of the issues involved in making the transition from technical writing to usability We were interested in exploring what skills writers bring from their current job in technical writing, which they believe they are missing ,and how they are acquiring them.
Most of the 67 participants in the survey (82%) are full time technical writers. The businesses represented range from finance to engineering; however, 45% are in the software industry. The companies themselves tend to be large: over half have 1000 or more employees, 25% are mid-sized with 100–1000, and 22% are smaller.
For a survey conducted at the STC Conference, it is unsurprising that 88% of the participants are members. Very few of the participants belong to organizations such as ACM’s SIGCHI, UPA, IEEE or HFES; and surprisingly only 11 of the STC members also belonged to the Usability SIG. It is not possible to tell whether interest in usability is so new that STC members have not yet joined other organizations, or if they completely switch affiliation as part of this transition.
The majority of the companies are just getting started in usability, and there are more laggards than early adopters. Many of the participants considered themselves the usability champions in their companies, though many also indicated that there was strong support from their department or other allies. A few had support from the top of their company. Sometimes it was directly related to documentation work—”through trying to document software that is difficult to use” or “documenting user interfaces and knowing that it’s easier to do if product is usable.” In other cases, comments such as “at a customer visit, [I] realized how differently they use/perceive the documents from how we thought they would,” and “customer feedback opened us up to the real problems” suggest that some lacked direct contact with users. While many of the comments were worded neutrally, others showed a clear sense of frustration in phrases such as, “common sense borne of exasperation at poorly designed products,” “sick and tired of programmers ignoring user needs in their design,” and “years of support, seeing the impact of usability hostile/ignorant design.”
How They Learned About Usability
hen asked how they had learned about usability, many participants had some formal education in usability at a university, a conference or a seminar. Other popular methods included self-educated through reading or on-the-job training. Few had access to mentoring, perhaps a reflection of the leadership position many were taking in their company in this area.
Existing Skills and New Skills
While many existing skills were transferred into usability activities, technical writers have also learned many new ones. Some comments on these new skills were “listening,” “listening and having patience,” “ability to step into shoes of user,” “objective observation—not giving into my assumptions,” “asking questions,” “paying attention to body language,” “diplomacy, open-mindedness, creativity,” “understanding user’s language or ‘world’,” “emphasis on making things simple and clear,” “looking at the big picture,” and “listening between the words.”
Most of these comments point to a need to develop ‘soft’ interpersonal or collaborative skills, rather than specific training in usability techniques.
What Would You Have Done Differently?
The final question on the survey asked, “What would you have done differently, if you could?” Most responses took this as an opportunity to critique the usability activities they attempted. These comments included, “have more customer contact,” “conduct usability test during internal beta test,” “start earlier in the development process,” “invest more effort in planning/methodology,” “would have done the same, only sooner,” “start earlier,” “observe other more,” “build usability activities formally into development cycle,” and “have user involved in design phase.” Despite the many self-criticisms, no one suggested abandoning their efforts, a hopeful sign in a group doing so much on-the-job training and self-education.
This survey was just a first step in exploring how and why technical communicators move into usability. With usability moving into the mainstream of software development (slowly, perhaps, but moving) communicators are well positioned to staff these new positions. We hope to extend this work in the future to examine both the barriers and points of entry.
About the Authors
Whitney Quesenbery, in addition to being Manager of the Usability SIG, is a lead interface designer for Cognetics Corporation. Helena Mentis is a student at Virginia Tech and worked on this project as part of an internship at Cognetics