by Ralph E. Robinson and Dick Miller
Reprinted from Usability Interface, Vol 7, No. 2, October 2000
When we began discussing this joint issue of Usability Interface and DocQment, we quickly realized that no concise definitions for either usability or quality existed: in fact, there were many definitions for both terms.
A query to a usability professionals’ mailing list for a definition produced many varied responses from which a brief working definition of usability can be distilled: A usable product is one that is learnable, efficient, memorable, error-averse, and satisfying. In other words, usability is a characteristic of a product or document. Defining quality is no easier: there are also a variety of answers. A brief working definition might be: Quality documentation is documentation presented in an easy-to-use, straightforward manner with complete glossaries and indexes.
What is quality documentation and what makes documentation usable?
The answer is not just a checklist of features to be included. There’s much more to it than that.
Have you ever encountered a piece of documentation that was technically accurate, used language and grammar correctly, was easy-to-use, had a great glossary and index, but was written for a different audience than what it claimed to cater to? You know the type, the User Manual that was really a System Administrator’s Guide! Did you find it very helpful? In your mind, was it a quality document?
Quality purists claim a quality document is one that complies with all the requirements set down by the customer for the documentation.
We have seen some of those documents, and they were far from easy to use, sometimes were technically inaccurate, and the proper use of the English language never entered into the picture!
We’ve all encountered widely used products that are not usable. TV remote controls and VCRs come immediately to mind. In the world of documentation, many of us have seen documents with excellent graphics, carefully planned page or screen layouts, and expensive production aspects. However, they can be difficult to use because the information is hard to access, hard to understand, or irrelevant to the supposed purpose of the document.
A good definition of quality documentation can be summed up in the following phrase: Fitness for the use it was intended. As professional technical communicators, we are expected to be excellent users of the English language, so that factor should never enter the equation. Usability characteristics such as the ability to navigate through the document and find what you need, getting accurate information when you find it, and having the information that assists you in completing your tasks are all characteristics of documentation that is fit for use. It goes without saying that meeting all the requirements of the customer who contracted the writing will be critical to your long-term success as a writer.
We agree that quality and usability are closely related terms that attempt to focus attention on aspects of a documentation product that cannot easily be thoroughly determined by inspection or heuristics. In both cases “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” to borrow an old cliché. That is to say, the quality and usability of a documentation product are best determined when the people for whom the product is intended use it in the context for which it is intended. Only then can the questions of the product’s quality and usability be answered.
This leads us back to this combined issue of the newsletter for the Quality and Usability SIGs We hope that it serves as a way for our Quality SIG and Usability SIG members to gain better understanding of each other’s perspectives. Our guess is that we’ll find that we share more commonalties than we have differences.