by Whitney Quesenbery, Cognetics Corporation
Reprinted from Usability Interface, Vol 6, No. 3, January 2000
“Why technical communicators and usability?” Both writers and software development managers have asked me that question. In both cases, it springs from a narrow view of communicators as “just writers.” It is a point of view that fails to see the many activities, from learning the subject matter to organizing the information or creating good document design, that are hidden behind that final task of writing the words.
The way I see it, technical communicators bring many skills to usability. It is only a small step from interviewing subject matter experts to contextual inquiry and other user observation techniques. The experience of learning to explain how to use software, or reducing a complex task to a series of steps is simply task analysis in reverse. Put that same energy into the beginning of a project, build that explanation into the interface with on-screen instructions, and the effects on usability can be dramatic.
One barrier to making the transition into a broader role in software development is attitude. Too often, writers buy into an image of documentation as an unavoidable cost, tacked onto the end of a project. This needs to change. Being able to clearly communicate user needs from site visits or usability tests is one way to win respect. Interacting with other team members with creativity, open-mindedness and diplomacy is another.
Learning to think and speak “management” is another piece of the puzzle. Managers are more likely to support usability when it is justified in business terms. Look for ways the results can be used immediately to improve the product. An easy example is to document how better user assistance and user interfaces can reduce support costs. Usability experts are in demand these days and will have to come from somewhere. Why not from the ranks of technical writers?