May 21, 2014

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Impact of Usability in Technical Communication

Have you ever used an application/product/Website and were left grumbling at the end because you were unable to get to the desired navigation? Frankly speaking, it happens to us many a time when we are left scratching our heads after seeing the complex GUI and wonder where to start and where to end.

We all are aware that end-users have a tendency to value a usable application/usable/Website. Now, what do you mean by a good usable product? An application/product/Website is considered to have a good usability if you can execute the desired task quickly without minimal assistance from outside resources, such as a Subject Matter Expert (SME) of that application/product/Website, internet, media, or any other outside resources. Ostensibly, an application/product/Website should be designed in such a way that the end-user can get the desired information in lesser number of mouse clicks. User experience engineering lets you design such interfaces, by following a User Centered Design (UCD) process. User Experience (UX) is a powerful phenomenon and we can say: Good UX is directly proportional to the end-user satisfaction.

Recently, I ventured into a new Website to inquire about a piece of information, which I was oblivious of. To tell you the truth, I was shell-shocked to see the intricate GUI of that Website. It was a herculean task for me to just figure-out the link, which would enable a successful logon to the Website. Unmindful of the next glitch that I was about to encounter, I breathed a sigh of relief as I was able to complete a successful logon process. But, the lady luck was not smiling on me that day and it yet again took me about 10-15 minutes more to fetch the information I was so keen to get my hands on.

To sum up the entire plethora of discontentment, I was gobsmacked at the way the whole usability of the entire Website was taken care of. Consequently, I wrote my suggestion to the support team that drastic changes need to be done regarding the hapless quality of the usability of the Website.

So what do you infer? Good quality UX is way beyond an exceptional application/product/Website.

Introduction to Usability

Usability emphasizes on a broader terminology called Human Interaction Design (HID). Usability is a quantifiable characteristic of a system that outlines the effortlessness with which humans can interact with a system or an application in order to achieve their goals. If we dig more inside usability as a term, we can assert: Usability can be applied to everything and is not applicable to a particular domain or software. For example, a season cricket ball is designed in such a way so that it can be easily gripped by a fast bowler or spinner. There are three types of cricket balls used by test playing nations: Duke (made in England), Kookaburra (made in Australia), and SG (made in India). All the three types of balls have subtle differences in their seam, but the major thing remains the same that they all are made using four pieces of round shaped leather consisting of a leather-made cork, which makes it usable and easy for a bowler to grip.  

Now, if you turn your attention towards the design cycle of any product - tangible or non-tangible, the usability methodology begins with the user and requirement analysis phase where in as a usability analyst you have to investigate the needs of an end-user. Then, you interact with the client to understand the end-user by creating use cases based on real time scenarios. There are different ways to do user research, such as contextual inquiry, ethnography research, and focus group interviews to understand the user requirement.

Subsequently, you need to derive the information architecture and create storyboards or wireframes to specify the proposed navigation. Based on the wireframes that are approved, visual design and UI development takes place. Finally, in the Usability Testing phase, you interact with the users and try and figure out if the expectations captured in the initial phase have been met in the development phase.

Technical Communication and Usability

Now, what is technical communication and how it is related to usability? Technical communication refers to a method of communicating information after researching and creating information on technical processes or products directed to a mass of people through media. As the name insinuates, a technical communicator is an advocate of user. The omnipotent focus of a technical communicator has always been the end-user who will use whatever has been created.

Now what if the technical content written in the user guide is not usable from the end-user’s point of view? Will the end-user refer it in spite of being stuck up while executing a task in the application/product/Website? I am sure that you know the answer to this question.

Can technical communicators contribute towards the better user experience of a project?  In one of my earlier organizations, I worked in a project following the agile model. What we used to do was whenever we used to encounter a cosmetic defect or any other discrepancy in the GUI of the application; we used to communicate it to the engineering team via an email or logging a defect in the defect tracking system.

Now, I reckon that you might have got the answer to your questionJ.

Similarities in Technical Communication and Usability

Technical Communication is a subset of UX/Usability or in other words, we can say that UX/Usability is a superset of Technical Communication. Technical communication and usability can be considered to share some common objectives of enabling people on how to use systems to complete their tasks.

The similarities between the two are as follows:

  • Both dwell in the same space at the interface between the world of the engineer and the real world.
  • Sometimes, the need for both is identified too late in the game.
  • Both are essentials of improving the user experience of the application/product/Website.
  • Both are good at wearing the shoes of the end-user and are able to analyze the things from the end-user’s point-of-view.

Basic Usability Techniques in Technical Communication

Some of the basic usability techniques that can really help the technical communicators to ensure a great user experience are:

  • Conduct usability test on the user documents: The user documents, which you create, can be sometimes very tricky based on the use-case scenarios you are documenting. Bearing in mind the length of user guide, testing the entire document is not always feasible. You can choose some complicated procedures that are significant from an end-user’s perspective and test them accordingly. As technical communicators are mostly working from offshore, they can test their documents remotely or one-on-one with the actual users.
  • Benchmarking while testing the document’s usability: Now while testing the usability of the document, you need to have certain benchmarks:
  • Time taken to complete a procedure.
  • Keeping track of the number of errors an end-user encounters while referring to the document.
  • The satisfaction level of the end-user while referring to the document.
  • Clear and concise UI elements: UI elements in the application/product/Website should be self-explanatory. Avoid using a confusing terminology in the user documents. 
  • Error messages should be crisp and to the point: As a technical communicator if you find the error messages not documented in a simple and concise language, you can assist the development team in writing them so that the end-user can perceive things easily. Thus, you need to be proactive in pointing out any technical jargon, which is there in the error messages.
  • Usable help: For any application/product/Website with any level of complexity, well- documented end-user documentation is just what the doctors have ordered.
  • Significance of Step-by-Step guides: Seemingly, the user experience of user guide/online help is enhanced if step-by-step guides are also documented for complex tasks that are done by the end-user frequently.

Conclusion

I believe there is an outpouring opinion that technology is a piece of trash if it is difficult to use and is not up to the mark. After all, it is supposed to improve our lives, not make them harder.

As a matter of fact, application of usability techniques in technical documentation would certainly enhance the end-user experience by leaps and bounds. The end-user is the king of kings and if the usability of the application/product/Website is not up to the mark then the technical documentation also tends to go for a toss.

Last but not the least, Technical Communication has made complex interactions easily understandable through effective documentation and has opened the floodgates for knowledge transfer. Most importantly, the application of usability techniques in technical communication has made these complex interactions more usable and is the real icing on the cake.

HCL's user experience services have helped organizations realize business outcomes through the superior digital marketing experience.

References:

http://www.hceye.org/UsabilityInsights/?p=96

http://www.upassoc.org/upa_publications/jus/2011may/redish2.html

http://infodesign.com.au/usabilityresources/articles/technicalcommunicators/