by Scott McDaniel, Cognetics Corporation
Looking for information about Usability Testing of Documentation? There are many other models available. In a recent presentation to my local STC chapter I identified four main stages for a document’s life cycle: Requirements Gathering, Design, Writing, and Maintenance. Here are some possible activities in each phase:
- Combine the requirements document for your documentation with that of the software. This ensures that they are developed together as a system. If possible, author the overall requirements document and go through several rounds of review with the developers.
- Conduct site visits; obtain forms and other user artefacts. See Beyer and Holtzblatt’s Contextual Inquiry and Hackos and Redish’s User and Task Analysis for Interface Design for complete methods.
- Do vocabulary tests on your project’s key terms and have users evaluate your paper. They’ll let you know where there are mismatches.
- Examine tech support records for previous product versions.
- Read newsgroups or other forums that your users frequent, post questions and participate in discussions.
- Do card sorting or affinity analysis with users to establish the best organization for the documentation’s material.
- Generate alternate mock Tables of Contents and ask users which sections they would look in to answer each of a given set of questions, such as paper prototyping a UI.
- Establish a documentation style guide that incorporates good design heuristics from both the user interface/web world and the documentation world.
- Generate sample layouts and spreads (with sidebars, cautions, etc.) and ask users to explain to you, in their own words, the function of each design element.
- For introductory/theoretical material, conduct reading comprehension tests. Have one user read the material and then explain it to another user. After writing the first several procedures or help topics, test the topics with users. Do this to eliminate design, language, and vocabulary problems before you’ve incorporated them into your entire manual/help file.
- Design effective maintenance procedures while designing the documentation set in the first place. There’s nothing like outdated documentation to introduce usability problems to the whole system.
- Conduct a full set of usability tests and heuristic evaluations on the documentation set. Obviously, it’s harder to fix problems now, but you have a good starting point for the next version of the document.
One book devoted entirely to the subject is Human Factors for Technical Communicators by Marlana Coe. In addition, the STC publishes a book called Practical Approaches to Usability Testing for Technical Documentation. Other books with substantial portions on the subject include Dynamics in Document Design by Karen A Schriver, A Practical Guide to Usability Testing, 2nd ed. by Joseph Dumas and Janice Redish, and Handbook of Usability Testing by Jeffrey Rubin.