As a technical communicator, it’s your job to provide end users with all the information they need to safely, efficiently, and effectively use a product. To achieve this, your technical documentation not only needs to be correct and complete but it also needs to offer good usability. Let us see how a good usability test can help you.
What is Usability?
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO 9241-11) defines usability as the “extent to which a system, product or service can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use”.
So how can you tell if your target audience will be able to confidently achieve a goal with the help of your instructions? Will they be able to easily and quickly find information without getting frustrated? Does your website offer good accessibility? And does the design of your technical documentation offer a good overall user experience (UX)?
The best way to answer these questions is to conduct usability testing.
What is Usability Testing?
According to Usability.gov, “usability testing refers to evaluating a product or service by testing it with representative users”.
Leading usability expert Carol M. Barnum defines usability testing as “…the activity that focuses on observing users working with a product, performing tasks that are real and meaningful to them”.
In short, it is important to always test your technical documentation with ‘real users’ and ‘real tasks’.
Before the Usability Test
Getting the most out of the limited time you will have with your test subjects requires good planning:
- What are your test objectives, i.e. what do you want to learn from the usability test?
- Select suitable test subjects based on your target audience analysis. How many users you need to recruit depends on the study, but according to UX expert Jakob Nielsen, 5 is a good number.
- Think about the tasks you want your users to attempt. Then create realistic task-based scenarios.
- What are your evaluation methods?
- Do you need any test equipment? Any access to products?
- Book a meeting room or other quiet location — you don’t need access to a high-tech usability lab.
- Make sure you carefully prepare all documentation, including scripts and questionnaires.
Conducting the Usability Test
Once you have finalised your test plan, and you have taken care of all organisational matters, it’s time to get started:
- Are there any step-by-step procedures or key tasks users struggled with?
- Is there any information users could not locate?
- Did they get ‘lost’ in your technical documentation?
- Did anyone have any major comprehensibility problems?
Based on your findings, you can now re-write, re-structure, and re-design your draft and eliminate any usability issues. Further usability testing can be very helpful to show how your changes have improved the overall user experience of your technical documentation.
If you enjoyed this blog and want to find out more about usability testing, here are some useful links:
- User testing, by Jakob Nielsen
- 10 Heuristics for Evaluating Documentation Usability, by TechWhirl
- Usability.gov, a leading UX resource website
Also, if you are interested in further study in the fields of technical communication and localisation, make sure you take a look at the TCLoc Master’s degree at the University of Strasbourg.