by Lori Fisher
Reprinted from Usability Interface, Vol 7, No. 2, October 2000
The user-centered design process applies to designing a piece of technical communication as well as designing a product. Placing the user at the center of the design and development process for information ensures that a usable piece of communication will be delivered to the customer. Technical communicators can apply each of the user-centered design (UCD) tasks to their own writing process and information development cycle.
Knowing the Users
As technical communicators begin planning a piece of communication such as a manual or tutorial, they can use the UCD process to assist them in gathering information about their audience.
The requirements-gathering process for a product should also include requirements for information—how do customers want to get information about this product? Through online help? Through wizards or tutorials? Through written manuals? What kind of information have they used in the past that proved most useful and why? How much do customers already know about this subject? What is their typical level of experience with this kind of product?
All of these questions are appropriate for focus sessions, surveys, or other requirements-gathering activities that may take place as part of the overall UCD process. If the overall UCD process does not include questions on information, technical communicators need to do this research themselves, for example through one-on-one interviews with typical customers, focus sessions, or surveys.
Closely related to understanding a user is understanding the tasks that they perform. Task analysis is key to the UCD process and invariably results in very valuable information for technical communicators. As technical communicators design their information deliverables, they should consider which tasks are done most often by the users, which are considered the most important or critical tasks, which are the most difficult, and so on. The output of the task analysis activity provides a good crosscheck for the design of information, since every task needs to be covered in some way by the technical communication deliverables. Technical communicators can participate in the UCD task analysis activities to ensure that they understand how a user expects to complete certain tasks, or other details that may impact the information design.
Setting usability goals
Just as the product itself will have usability goals, the information should also be measured against usability targets. The audience analysis and task analysis should have provided some clues about what factors influence this particular user set’s perception of usability: not needing to look in a book? finding information in five minutes or less? installing in less than one hour? Technical communicators should consider setting goals such as time to complete a step in a tutorial, time to find the right section on a particular topic, or 100% success when using the index to find a topic. Looking at the competition can provide valuable insights into the level of achievement of these goals that would be required to surpass the competition in usability. UCD sessions where customers are asked to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of other products and other information can also help to set appropriate targets.
To obtain early feedback on the usability of information, technical communicators need to do as much testing with actual users as possible using early mock-ups of drafts, paper prototypes of online help systems, or storyboards of tutorials. All of these early methods are considered low-fidelity prototyping. They can be very valuable in determining early reactions to your information design before too much resource is invested in the actual writing and coding of the deliverables. It’s always distressing to find out later, for example, that users want their reference information in alphabetical format, or their installation information in three steps instead of 13.
Such early reviews of designs are often called design walkthroughs. As more product and information becomes available, the prototypes become more complete and sophisticated, or high-fidelity, and prototype evaluations can begin to take on the more rigorous characteristics of usability testing.
Usability testing of information is often most effective when done in conjunction with overall product usability testing, using scenarios that measure both product usability and user perception of information usability. However, if your product team does not plan to use scenarios in their usability tests that include using the information to complete the tasks, technical communicators can design usability scenarios to test some parts of the information design independent of the product. For example, a relatively simple usability test can measure the time it takes to find specific topics using an index, or using an online search tool for an online help system. Other usability tests can ask users to read a certain product-task scenario and then determine where in the information (online, printed, tutorial) they would expect to find the information necessary to complete the task.
Retesting and iterative design
Once an initial usability test of the information has been completed, the process begins again! Technical communicators can use the information from initial testing to redesign information as necessary, complete various deliverables, and test again. Beta test programs associated with early product delivery can be an effective mechanism for trying out early iterations of the information deliverables.
Skills needed by technical communicators to be successful with UCD
Many of the skills required for the UCD activities described above are skills that, traditionally, technical communicators already possess. These include: audience analysis, task analysis and task-oriented writing, designing survey questions and customer scenarios for information use, and clear communication with customers and team members.
However, full participation in the user-centered design process requires some additional skills that technical communicators may need to develop:
- Market analysis
- Competitive analysis
- Observing users
- Interviewing users
- Interpreting data from user feedback sessions
- Creating prototypes and running prototype feedback sessions
- Capturing the design and the rationale for design decisions
- Communicating the design to others
- Making design trade-offs based on schedules, resources, cost, and the priorities of other designers.
As Technical Communicators develop more of these additional skills, they will become more effective in the overall UCD process, and will be able to expand the value they bring to the product development cycle.