Digital accessibility is about ensuring that all of the people that visit your website, including those with disabilities, can navigate your content without barriers and find the information they need. Read on to find out more about the basic principles of digital accessibility.

The Web is for everyone, regardless of where they live, how old they are, what language they speak, and regardless of their mental or physical abilities. However, many websites contain barriers that make them difficult to use for people with disabilities. Digital accessibility is about removing these barriers.

A number of governments around the world are increasingly recognizing the need for digital accessibility through laws and regulations, making accessibility not just an option, but a requirement for many websites. It has therefore become even more important for website creators to be aware of digital accessibility principles.

What Is Digital Accessibility?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the term “accessibility” as “the fact of being able to be reached or obtained easily” and as “the quality of being easy to understand”. Therefore, if something is “accessible” it can be used or understood freely, without any constraints.

In an ideal world, all internet users should be able to freely and easily browse the internet. Unfortunately, for many people with disabilities as well as for older internet users, the degree of accessibility for websites and apps can be very low. Any disability can have a potential impact on the user experience, ranging from minor inconveniences to the inability to use a website at all. This includes visual, motor/physical, auditive, as well as cognitive and learning disabilities. For example, as the Web is a highly visual medium, blindness and vision impairment can prevent users from being able to navigate websites and access information.

How to Make a Website Accessible

Use the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

Image showing tiles with access symbols.

The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) developed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to promote digital accessibility and set standards that websites must fulfil in order to be labelled “accessible”. The WAI furthermore helps organizations implement digital accessibility in their websites by providing technical specifications, educational resources, and examples of good practices.

As of spring 2022, the most up-to-date version of the digital accessibility criteria is WCAG 2.1. Based on these guidelines, this article provides an overview of some general good practices to keep in mind when creating websites.

Conversely, if you already have a site and would like to know how accessible it is, you might also consider testing your website to find out its accessibility score.

Think About the Design of Your Website

The design of a website is a key component of digital accessibility. This includes the use of colors, visual elements, and layouts. Using highly contrasting colors can make content more visible to users with low vision. It is also a good practice to avoid the combination of red and green, as red/green color blindness is a common form of color blindness.

People with disabilities can use assistive technology that help them navigate the Web. One example are screen readers. Screen readers read the text on a website out loud and are therefore especially helpful for people with visual impairments. Screen readers also read image alt texts. Images and other visual elements included on a website should therefore have appropriate alt texts describing them. 

One way of quickly creating a multiple column layout on a webpage is by using tables. While these tables are invisible on the front-end, they cause difficulties to people using screen readers. Screen readers encountering a table will inform the user of the various columns and rows encountered on the page instead of simply reading the content. Using tables simply for layout purposes should therefore be avoided.

Structure Your Content and Make It Easy to Read

Another principle of digital accessibility is properly structuring web content. Screen readers can scan a page for headings and hence create an overview of a page’s content for users to orientate themselves by. However, screen readers can only identify headings if they are properly ascribed the title tags <h1>, <h2>, etc. It might be tempting to choose headings based on stylistic purposes, such as using italics to indicate a heading or skipping heading levels by going from an <h2> to an <h4>. To avoid confusing screen readers, heading levels should be strictly in order and should serve the purpose of organizing content into a logical structure.

On an accessible website, content should ideally not only be easy to navigate, but also easy to understand. This can be achieved by avoiding long and complex sentence structures and jargon and slang. When acronyms are first introduced, they should be written in full and glossaries can be provided to explain specialized terminology. Applying simplified writing techniques not only benefits people with learning disabilities, but every user visiting your site.

Take Into Account Navigation and Interactivity

Some users who cannot navigate with a mouse rely on keyboard commands to browse the internet. When creating an accessible website, it is therefore important to ensure that it can be navigated easily with a keyboard. Menus are a main axis of navigation. It should therefore be ensured that each item of the menu can be accessed with a keyboard. Some menus have a “flyout” functionality, which reveals sub-menu items through mouseover. In general, elements that are only revealed and/or clickable through mouseover should be avoided altogether. 

It is also a good idea to provide additional points of navigation, such as a sitemap and breadcrumb menus. In order to make long or complex pages accessible, “jump to” anchor links can be added to allow users to more easily navigate between content sections.

Screen readers can also be set to identify all the links on a page. It is therefore important that links be given descriptive names, as someone using a screen reader may not alway be able to read a link within its context. A link that reads “Read our FAQs” is for example more descriptive than “Click here” and will allow the user to more easily identify what they are looking for.

Towards a More Accessible Digital Future

Digital accessibility is about making sure that everyone can use websites, regardless of their physical or mental abilities. This need is also increasingly underlined by governments and it is therefore important to build websites for all users. In addition, implementing digital accessibility principles, such as highly contrasting colours and easy to understand language benefits not only people with disabilities, but improves the user experience for every user.

Would you like to learn how to create websites? Be sure to check out the TCLoc Master’s program, a distance learning master’s degree that combines technical communication and web technologies.  

This article was edited by Janna Mack.

Choosing colors for a website is about more than aesthetics and preferences. Color can determine how users engage with your website and perceive your brand. Learn how to harness the principles of color psychology in UX design.

In web design, color plays a much larger role for the customer than simply forming first impressions. Color choice is an avenue of communication utilized by marketers to attract a specific type of consumer and build a brand. Not only is strategic color design a great way to engage an audience, but it should also embody the essence or values a company may want to convey to the public. There is even a field of study that looks at how people react to colors: color psychology. In UX design, color psychology primarily deals with how color affects people’s responses to a website. While there are no concrete rules on what a website should look like, some principles of color psychology can be applied to UX design to ensure a positive and professional experience for website users.

Understanding Color in UX Design

Having a dominant color that can be found on all marketing material and company documents is crucial for building a brand’s image. Once a company selects a primary color, one or two additional colors should be added to create a color palette. Although it is not advisable to use more than three colors within a palette, variants (several shades of the same color, for example) may be added to create a fuller look. Traditional company palettes are generally composed as follows:

Three color wheels demonsttrating analogous, triadic, and complementary color combinations.
Different possibilities of color combination, 99design

UX design follows some general color principles. Websites typically employ two primary colors that work in tandem to create a contrasting look. This usually entails one neutral, darker shade as the background, while the other shade is dynamic, light, and eye-catching. Vibrant colors should be used sparingly to draw attention to key parts of the site, while the more muted colors should be used liberally to create a cohesive look.

Before moving forward, it is very  important to note that the perception of color varies from culture to culture. While most western countries view white as a symbol of purity and health, Chinese audiences might view white as the color of mourning. These divergences in perception can vary significantly across every culture and the entire color spectrum. While this article focuses on the western color psychology, it is a good idea to make a website’s UX as accessible, versatile, and multiculturally applicable as possible. 

Conveying Meaning Through Color

Red shape

The color red possesses many, sometimes contradictory, meanings. Although red is typically associated with love and passion, it has ties to rage and danger as well. Because of this, red is a focal color for emergency and relief services. It is also frequently used as a key shade in fast-food chain color palettes because of its symbolic attachment with intense sensations such as hunger. 

Orange shape

Many consider orange to be a welcoming color that exudes energy and individuality. It promotes feelings of community and sharing, and it is often a popular color in marketing, online sales, food, or event industries. These industries select orange as a primary shade for their company because of its liveliness and vibrant nature.

Yellow shape

Yellow is an energetic color that is representative of light, joy, optimism, and childhood. Its use is suited for the marketing of toys or objects related to youth. It is also especially popular as an accent color, used to infuse energy or liveliness into a brand’s color scheme. Yellow is rarely seen as the primary color on a website because it washes over other colors and tires the eye quickly.

Pink shape

Pink is typically associated with femininity and romance. Generally, products marketed with this color are directed towards a female consumer. This color can be found in makeup, beauty, and wellness marketing. It is also has strong ties to breast cancer awareness, and is a marked color within the feminist movement.

Brown shape

Contrary to the more vibrant colors, brown is a rather reliable color. It often embodies friendliness and environmental consciousness. Due to the associaiosn brown has with practically and reliability, it is seens frequently in shipping companies. This color can often be found in furniture marketing because of its rustic, sturdy appearance.

Blue shape

The most common color among websites is blue. Its darker tones bring softness and calmness, while its lighter tones create an aura of sleekness and intelligence. However, too much use can give the impression of coldness, even depression. Banks, insurance companies, and social networks usually incorporate this popular color for blue’s ties to trust and loyalty.

Green shape

Much like brown, green is associated with nature. While it typically produces an feeling of harmony and success, it can also refer to evolution and growth and is most often used to accent the ecological or ethical side of a brand. Companies revolving around outdoor work, hunting, or organic products implement green to attract their target audience.

Purple shape

Due to its richness, companies like to utilize purple to inspire a sense of luxury. In addition to this, it tends to invoke a feeling of mysticim and imagination. This is a color recommended for marketers targeting a spiritual audience. It is often seen on astrology, crystal, or spiritual websites.

For a sleeker look, some companies opt to create a website solely in shades of black and white. In just the right dose, these colors allow a sober and elegant effect. 

Black shape

Commonly used in the background and accompanied by a brighter color, black brings a touch of sophistication to a site and can be combined with any color. Although it is mostly used for vehicle and technology companies, this shade is versatile in nearly every context. Therefore, black appears il the websites of almost every industry.

Gray shape

Websites integrate gray or shades of silver because it brings a polished appearance, along with an air of professionalism. Gray is rarely used as a primary color for a website but rather an accent or alternative to its more intense shades, black and white. Conversely, silver appears is almost always used as a primary color for websites that target a more expensive look, like vehicles and jewelry brand.

White shape

Another frequent background color is white. A website designer may be more inclined to select a white background if their website includes many colorful visuals. This layout allows for sites that features more photos (such as travel blog, hotels, or resorts) to maintain a sleeker look while integrating colorful images.

How to Choose the Right Colors for UX Design

The color pairings chosen by web designers are not thrown together at random. Rather, there is a method to what color schemes are complimentary, from both an aesthetic and marketing standpoint.

There are several softwares that assist UX designers in choosing the correct color palette for their website. Some convenient softwares that assist in the color selection process are Coolors.co, Paletton, or Adobe Color. These aids provide the user an easy-to-navigate interface that offers endless color combinations. After selecting a primary color for the website, the softwares listed above will provide an array of combinations that compliment the orginal selection. These software are great starter tools for beginners in website design. 

Color palette showing 5 shades of purple.
Color palette created by Coolors
Color wheel next to a color palette. The palette shows shades of purple, blue, and yellow.
Color Wheel by Paletton
Color wheel and color palette. The color palette shows shades of 3 shades of blue and 2 shades of yellow.
Color Wheel by Adobe Color

Pulling Inspiration From an Image

In another genre, it is also possible to be inspired by the colors of a picture. Indeed, this technique will bring you a very simple and natural color palette, but also a glimpse of the marriage of colors between them. First of all, you can select one of your pictures that you like and, with the help of a photo editing software (such as Photoshop for example), extract a few colors from it. If you wish, you can also get inspiration from the designs already created, such as in the Design Seeds website. A photo with a selection of 5 colors is proposed to you according to themes, seasons or colors.

A color palette of of 6 shades next to a photograph of palm tree silhouettes in front of a sunset.
Example of a Realization by Design Seeds

If you found this article on UX design and web development interesting, then you can learn more by checking out the TCLoc Master’s blog for more articles on this topic.

This article was edited by Ella Goodwin and Cameron Van.

Cognitive biases are a great tool for technical communicators as this knowledge can help improve both design usability and user experience. This blog will provide information on how designers can use cognitive biases to better appeal to their audience. 

If you are unfamiliar with the concept of cognitive biases, read this interview with Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck — Cognitive Biases: An Extension of Usability and User Experience.

Using Cognitive Biases in Design 

In usability, cognitive biases offer designers a deeper understanding of digital users’ behaviors. Familiarity with cognitive biases can lead to better design practices by equipping creators with the knowledge needed to guide users in accomplishing digital tasks. Different biases can lead to different implementations in design. For instance, the American Psychological Association (APA)’s Dictionary of Psychology defines confirmation bias as “the tendency to seek information that confirms pre-existing thoughts, ideas, or expectations while avoiding contradicting information” (2020). Knowing that the average digital user has a confirmation bias, designers can adjust how information is presented. In relation to this bias, we consulted Dr. Quan Zhou, professor, department chair, and graduate program director at Metropolitan State University, and he suggested that designers could use the confirmation bias to present contradicting information side-by-side. Presenting alternative information in a side-by-side comparison encourages users to make informed decisions. 

Many cognitive biases exist, some more researched than others, but the challenge for designers is learning how to use this information. Read on to learn more on how to implement cognitive biases in design.

How to Incorporate Cognitive Biases in Design 

Knowing when and how to integrate cognitive biases is essential. Below are two phases with a series of steps that can help guide designers in understanding and using their audience’s biases in design. 

Preparation Phase:

Dr. Zhou shares that it is crucial to consider cognitive biases before a design is complete. Since biases offer a perspective or lens through which a designer can view their audience, waiting until after the digital media asset is released is not helpful in addressing user needs and expectations.

The preparation phase is an important stage for conducting research and brainstorming the types of design elements that should appear in your digital design. Conducting research helps you gain a better understanding of your audience and determine if cognitive biases can be addressed in your design. To consider the role of cognitive biases in your design, begin by:

  1. Researching your target audience 
  1. Researching cognitive biases 
  1. Determining which biases your audience is most likely to rely on
    • Note: Some designs may be restricted by formatting standards and unable to address cognitive biases. One example includes legal notices or clauses that must appear in the original documentation format. Designers must determine when to address and when not to address cognitive biases.
  1. Determine how the relevant biases can be incorporated into a design element
    • i.e. If the design is a website selling a product or service, consider allowing customers to share their experience on a feedback or comments section as the social proof bias explains that users are influenced by other people’s actions. 

       Implementation Phase:

After identifying the cognitive biases that are relevant to your design, you must incorporate them. To ensure that you have implemented effective designs, complete the following steps: 

  1. Create design elements based on the cognitive biases you have identified
    • Note: Designers should ensure that designs based on cognitive biases are created in the user’s best interest. Ethical concerns arise when a design practice does not consider the user’s needs and, instead, prioritizes company needs such as an increase in revenue. Since cognitive biases help designers to understand the psychology of users, it is important to integrate this knowledge in a manner that is ethical and benefits the user.
  1. Finalize your prototype 
  1. Conduct a usability test
  1. Determine which elements were effective and ineffective
  1. Revise your design accordingly 

Conducting a usability test is crucial to identifying which design elements are helpful and which are confusing for users. Additionally, users can express how well their expectations were met and they can provide suggestions for new design elements. Usability tests provide valuable feedback for revising your design. 

Design elements will vary based on the cognitive biases that are being addressed. Furthermore, some digital designs may not demonstrate a need to address cognitive biases, but the user research conducted in the preparation phase will help you learn about your audience and implement designs that guide them. 

Additional Resources 

Gathering user research can be time consuming and even difficult, but once complete, cognitive biases provide technical communicators with another tool for creating effective designs. In separate interviews with Dr. Verhulsdonck and Dr. Zhou, the professors recommended the following resources for technical communicators seeking information on cognitive biases. 

  • “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman
  • “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information” by Daniel J. Levitin
  • “Consumer Psychology” by Catherine V. Jansson-Boyd
  • “Fogg Behavior Model” by Dr. BJ Fogg
  • “Creating Content That Influences People: Considering User Experience and Behavioral Design in Technical Communication” by Nadya Shalamova and Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck
  • “100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People” by Susan Weinshenk

Cognitive biases offer technical communicators the opportunity to create more meaningful and intentional design practices. By incorporating human psychology into design, technical communicators can improve the usability of their digital design and improve user experience. 

To learn more about cognitive biases and their role in usability, don’t hesitate to read the interview with Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck!

Acknowledgements

Much appreciation to Dr. Zhou and Dr. Verhulsdonck for their time and insight on cognitive biases. Thank you both for the encouragement and assistance.

About the Interviewer

Madison Brown is an intern in communication for the TCLoc Master at the  University of Strasbourg and an undergraduate at Louisiana Tech University. For any questions regarding this article, contact Madison on LinkedIn.

Below is an interview with Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck which provides an overview of cognitive biases and their role in usability and user experience. Dr. Verhulsdonck provides introductory information on cognitive biases for technical communicators that are unfamiliar with the concept, and he discusses the importance of cognitive biases in design.

Read previous interview →

Meet Dr. Verhulsdonck

Madison Brown 

Good afternoon Dr. Verhulsdonck. Can you please begin by introducing yourself? 

Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck 

Of course. My name is Gustav Verhulsdonck and I am an assistant professor in Business Information Systems at Central Michigan University. Currently, I am an international research partner at the Digital Life Institute (a consortium of international scholars studying digital technologies and AI). I have worked as a technical writer for International Business Machines (IBM) and as a visiting researcher for the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. My research has appeared in the Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Technical Communication Quarterly, ACM’s Communication Design Quarterly, and the STC’s Intercom Magazine.

Madison Brown 

Thank you, that is an impressive introduction. In your own words, how would you define cognitive biases?

Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck 

Cognitive biases are shortcuts, habits, and heuristics that we use to get through our everyday life that I think factor into different situations. That’s my short description. I don’t know if you want me to continue on that.

Roles of Cognitive Biases in Design

Madison Brown 

That’s perfect. Thank you. How would you describe the role of cognitive biases in design, and would you say that they have more than one role?

Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck 

Yes. So, the function of cognitive biases in design, right now, I’m seeing it as two-fold. I’m seeing it as benefits which allow you to better understand your user and to make use of cognitive biases. Knowing that your user is distracted and does hyperbolic discounting, an important question to ask is how can you simplify the design so that they can use it and they’re happy? The other side is that cognitive biases can also be misused. Your understanding of people’s cognitive biases, such as once again, hyperbolic discounting, in which users seek an immediate reward. I don’t really want to think about the long-term future effect, but this knowledge can also create deceptive dark design patterns and those are not really good for the user. If you’re interested, I know there’s a darkpatterns.org. Harry Brignull has cataloged a lot of these dark patterns, Colin Gray has also studied them, and there’s also hashtags like #darkUX, where people are decrying how companies and websites are using deceptive design patterns that mistreat or deceive the end user because the user in a hurry and they don’t want to spend too much time. I think there’s a definite role there and the reason why I say there’s a definite role is that I think we’re slowly moving away from just usability, and we are in the area of user experience design.

So, usability includes the functional aspects such as can you achieve the task? Then I think we’re moving into user experience design, where we’re looking at before, during, and after an interaction, and what are the emotions, feelings, behaviors of users and how can we make them so that the user finds the attraction pleasant, not just usable, but pleasant, and ensure they have trust in the design. I feel like there’s a big shift towards user experience design, and we need to look at cognitive biases as heuristics that our users will bring to our documentation, our content, and our designs. Hopefully that makes sense. That’s a long answer.

Madison Brown 

That’s fascinating. It does make sense. I appreciate the two-part aspect of both usability and user experience.

Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck 

Well, maybe there’s more. Those are the two kind of areas I see absolutely.

Cognitive Biases and User Experience

Madison Brown 

Expanding on user experience, how would you say that these cognitive biases can influence the user’s experience or expectations?

Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck 

There are three areas. Eric Schaeffer, I think, is his name. He talks about PET or persuasive design, emotions and trust. I think he bases himself on the work of BJ Fogg, who’s popularized, I believe, persuasive design. So, I think those are important components of user experience design. Is it persuasive? Is it engaging for us because we’re so distracted? We have so many different media asking, clamoring for our attention. There is a cognitive bias called the peak-end cognitive bias. Research psychologists found that we only remember peaks like really negative or really positive experiences, and anything that was kind of neutral or that went well, we tend to forget. So, our emotional state is important. The emotional state of the user and then trust, I think, also ties in with that, that you feel like you could trust the design because so much of our lives are online now and so many things that we do from pension plans or financial transactions are online. Those are, I think, crucial components in user experience design. There’s also a behavioral economics component that I’m happy to talk more about or I can keep it short.

Madison Brown 

I think that’s a wonderful explanation, and I definitely see all those aspects revolving around user experience. In your opinion, why should technical communicators study and be conscious of these cognitive biases in their design and of the biases that their audience may possess?

Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck 

Okay, I see this as a better way to know your user so that we [designers] can have better user understanding. I see it as an extension of thinking about cognitive load. So, we know about cognitive load and that we must reduce cognitive load for our users by kind of chunking our information. I think having an awareness of cognitive biases lets you go a bit more deeply into the psychology of the user and so I’ll give you an example. Once again, hyperbolic discounting, where people tend to go for something immediate rather than something far off into the future. Well, if you know that about users then you also know that if you’re overwhelming them with information that they’re not going to like that. But let’s say you have an end user license agreement, and you have the important point conversationally, this design allows them to know “yes, this is what I want to do” or “no, this is not what I want to do”. Then you’re helping them with an informational need, and you enhance their trust. So likewise, if you know that you’re in a situation where users are not aware of what they should be doing and you can design using an understanding of social proof, that people sometimes will do things because other people are doing them, you can then add a message such as, “this many people have started their retirement discounts with company x”. The message assures that user and helps them do something which is quite important, to start a retirement savings account, no matter how small. 

So, I think given that our lives have become more online, we’re moving away from “here are the instructions” kind of model of technical communication and into user experience design. I think that’s super important. I think it’s a better way of psychologically understanding your user in relation to how they look at information and the habits they bring to that information. I see this as an extension of usability into user experience and a better understanding of your user beyond, oh, they have cognitive load or they like usability. You’re going into actual practical components of people’s behavior that could help them in a significant way. Hopefully that answers your question.

Cognitive Biases in the Design Process

Madison Brown 

I appreciate the wonderful perspective. Then addressing the application of cognitive biases, should cognitive biases always be considered or accounted for in the design process? In other words, would the usability of someone’s design, such as a website, app, or online document, decrease without considering their audience’s cognitive biases or without accounting for those needs?

Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck 

I think having an awareness of cognitive biases in general is important, but I think it depends on the situation. Sometimes, even if your user is a cognitive miser and they don’t want to spend too much time deep thinking about things you may still be unable to reduce the information to bullet points. For instance, simplifying certain situations like signing financial documents, buying a home, or something that is super important, you have to go over things with them. You need to be aware when being aware of your users’ cognitive biases is important. I don’t think it’s a hard and fast rule of, oh, they [users] are cognitive misers. Therefore, for all users, we can’t just remove text and just give them a Cliff Notes/simplified version. So my answer is it depends. I think it is, as a general rule, cognitive biases can allow you to think about your user in a deeper way, knowing that we all share these habits. We don’t want to overspend on thinking, we rely on habits. We have these different types of ways of interacting with the world that are pretty common to people. So, in that sense, I think it’s an interesting design heuristic that you can apply. Does that answer your question?

Madison Brown 

Yes. So basically, it’s another tool for understanding and aiding your user.

Learn more about Cognitive Biases

Madison Brown 

Perfect. For our last and final question, what are some resources that you might recommend to technical communicators who want to expand or learn about cognitive biases?

Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck 

Okay. So, at the risk of sounding and self-promoting, I do think my article with Nadya Shalamova, “Creating Content That Influences People: Considering User Experience and Behavioral Design in Technical Communication” in the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication is a good start. I think there’s also cognitive biases in Susan Weinschenk’s book, “100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People” which gives a good sense of what people do, how to implement design strategies, and how to think about people. So, this is a really good resource. There’s also a codex of 100 different cognitive biases that gets overly technical. Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking Fast and Slow” is good to have at a conceptual level. It asks if the user employs a Systems 1 thought process, which is a quick and shallow kind of thinker, or a System 2 situation where the user does deep rational logic contemplation. System 2 just takes time, it’s slower. Beyond that, for cognitive biases or dark UX, I would recommend Harry Brignull’s website darkpatterns.org. It has a great catalog of dark UX patterns.

Colin Gray has a great work in human-computer interaction on dark UX patterns. BJ Fogg is a psychologist and his work on persuasive design, and particularly his formula of motivation, ability, and trigger is, I think, quite important to look at how you can use cognitive biases and the motivation of the user, their abilities and the triggers or prompts in the interface to get them to behave in a particular intended way. So, I think those are important touchstones. Also, I think BJ Fogg created a starfish model, which I think is fascinating for user experience design where he says, “don’t design for the outcome but design for the behavior”. He kind of compares that to regular user experience journey mapping, and then it creates a starfish, like changing these different components of behavior towards a particular outcome. So really thinking about the user and their behavior from a cognitive biases standpoint and factoring that into design, I think is also fascinating. So, there’s a ton of work out there in terms of applying it to user experience design.

Madison Brown 

These are all perfect. Thank you so much. I appreciate the recommendations, are there any additional comments or suggestions that you wanted to add?

Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck 

I hope that people start studying cognitive biases and behavioral design and design patterns in general. I think we have gigantic libraries of design patterns that are being used in UX to structure everyday interactions, and these are created with an understanding of the user’s cognitive biases. So I think our field stands to gain a whole lot by understanding that. The better we get at identifying design patterns, I think the better and more effective content will become as new design patterns emerge that people are expecting. There’s tons of good research out there and hopefully that then encourages people to want to research it. I’m definitely excited that you’re doing that. Other people are doing that as well. Kirk [Dr. Kirk St. Amant, the Eunice C. Williamson Chair in Technical Communication at Louisiana Tech University and Guest Professor for the TCLoc Master’s at the University of Strasbourg] most definitely is as well with scripting theory, he’s looking at it in a different way, but also addressing design patterns and people’s heuristic expectations. I think that’s quite interesting as well.

The other component, which I find interesting, is that global communication, has shown us that we all have cognitive biases. They are pre linguistic, I think. The use of mobile devices has made it become this common language. So, I think we are talking about a different way of communicating that people now expect when they go to a different country or different culture. Users can still rely on the same design pattern or heuristic to figure out how to use a device. Sometimes the activity may be installing a new app, installing something on a gaming console, or knowing when to do a two-factor authentication. So, I think we were seeing that kind of broadening of design patterns that are not culture specific. I believe he [Dr. St. Amant] is working in that area as well.

Madison Brown 

Thank you Dr. Verhulsdonck for your time and insight on cognitive biases. I appreciate you meeting with me, and I hope you have a wonderful weekend.

Dr. Gustav Verhulsdonck 

Thank you, you too!

Interviewer: Madison Brown

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:

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.

It’s no secret that TCLoc students are an international group of professionals that have diverse backgrounds and expertise. Thanks to TCLoc instructor Kirk St.Amant, a small group of alumni were able to share their skills and knowledge with his usability and user experience students at Louisiana Tech University in the United States. In this interview, Kirk explains why he invited TCLoc alumni specifically to give guest lectures in his course, what insight they were able to share with his students, and why he plans to do it again in the future.

Meeting Kirk St.Amant

Hi, Kirk! To start, could you please briefly introduce yourself?

My name is Kirk St.Amant, and I am a Professor and the Eunice C. Williamson Chair in Technical Communication at Louisiana Tech University and I serve as the Director of Louisiana Tech’s Center for Health and Medical Communication (CHMC). I am also a Research Fellow in User Experience Design with the University of Strasbourg and an Adjunct Professor of Health and Medical Communication with the University of Limerick. I have a background in technical communication, international studies, and anthropology, and I research how psychological factors affect usability and design — particularly in medical settings.

Wow! That’s quite an impressive list. How long have you been with TCLoc and what course do you teach for the program?

I have been with the TCLoc Program since the spring of 2018, and I teach the class “TU Visual Communication Part 2 — “Usability and User Experience Design”

The Usability and User Experience Design Course

Well, we’re certainly lucky to have you as part of the program. I see that you asked TCLoc alumni to be guest speakers in one of your courses in the United States. Could you tell us which course that was for why you chose them specifically?

I asked TCLoc alumni who completed my TCLoc Usability and User Experience Design class and who had done dissertations on usability to share their dissertation research projects — how they approached usability for the project, the research and related design methods they used, and the challenges they encountered (as well as steps to doing usability research for clients in the future) — with graduate and undergraduate students in my usability and user experience class at Louisiana Tech University (fall 2020).

And what were some of the major takeaways from what they said?

The major takeaways from these lectures were:

  • Approaches to applying ideas from class to do usability research in the field
  • The challenges of doing usability research in the field — what they can be, how to plan for them, and how to address them
  • The benefits gained from doing such research — both for the clients for which TCLoc students did projects AND what the students themselves learned in terms of how to apply, revise, build upon, and add to concepts and practices they learned in their usability class
  • The contributions usability research can make to different organizations (companies or government agencies) and how to share such contributions with others via written reports, presentations, and other formats
  •   Suggestions for how to plan and engage in effective usability-related research in the future

The overall objective was for students in the LA Tech class to learn from the experiences of TCLoc alumni and understand different ways to apply, revise, or build upon concepts covered in the class to do effective usability research and related design work in the field/outside of the classroom.

A Successful Collaboration

That must have been incredibly insightful for your LA Tech students! What was their overall reaction to the TCLoc alumni’s input?

They thought it was excellent!  Not only did they learned a great deal from the TCLoc alumni experiences in terms of how to approach usability work and/or apply ideas from class to real-world contexts, but they also learned how usability is international in scope, how it is/can be approached across nations and cultures, and how it can contribute to successful communication in international contexts.  Since the class, I’ve actually had several students ask to do international usability projects, and I’m currently working with these students and international partners on such projects.

That’s amazing to see how what the TCLoc alumni said inspired some of your students to pursue more internationally-focused projects. So, do you plan on doing this again in the future?

Definitely! I’d like to use this approach again both in the usability classes I teach at Louisiana Tech University and in future usability classes I teach with the TCLoc program — having alumni of the program share their stories, experiences, and suggestions with individuals currently in the program.   I’m also happy to chat more with interested persons about these projects as well as the chance to collaborate on classes in the future (e.g., serve as guest lecturers or clients for student projects).

It sounds like it was a great experience for everyone involved! Thank you for inviting the alumni to participate in your course and also for the expertise you bring to the TCLoc program. We look forward to future collaborations between TCLoc alumni and your students!

The diverse skills and expertise of not only our students but also our instructors is what makes the TCLoc master’s degree great. Alumni have the opportunity to participate in TCLoc-related activities even after they graduate, whether it be through guest lectures or other forms of involvement, such as our mentoring program. To keep up to date with the latest news, make sure to follow us on social media!

Your approach in optimizing your website or application has to be based on a set of objective tools that allow you to observe, measure, evaluate, and eventually make well-informed decisions for your next web project. This can be successfully achieved in two main directions. Firstly, you need to have a usability testing strategy in order to test your digital product before it is launched on a wide scale. Secondly, you need to be able to collect UX behavioral data, which is quantitative data to measure and analyze users’ interactions with your website or application.

Why do you need UX behavioral data?

UX behavioral data will help you to find answers to some of the most important questions: how users are interacting with your website and why they are interacting the way they do.

Here are some of the main tools to help you retrieve UX behavioral data:

  • The website’s built-in tools found in several content management systems such as WordPress, Moodle, Magento, Drupal, etc.
  • Website analytics tools such as Google Analytics, Adobe Analytics, LuckyOrange, etc.
  • Online ads analyses provided by social media analytics and ads manager, Google Ads, etc.

How to organize UX behavioral data?

After you collect all the data you may need, you will have to make sense of it. It is highly recommended that you organize them in the following four online behavioral data types:

  1. Acquisition Data: acquiring or winning over new visitors and analyzing where they come from, such as search engines, ad campaigns, partner websites, social media, etc.
  2. Engagement Data: the visitors’ actions on your website, such as behavior flow, click heatmaps, session duration, bounce rate, landing pages versus exit pages, page views, etc.
  3. Conversion Data: the percentage of website visitors who end up taking the desired action, such as purchasing a product, downloading a file, signing up, etc.
  4. Technical Data: data from the users’ devices, browsers, operating systems, screen resolution as well as analysis of your website’s speed and performance.

Integrate UX behavioral data with usability testing

Data without deeper analysis and action is just empty numbers. So, put these behavioral UX data to good use by integrating them in a strategy of usability testing.

Usability testing is a set of qualitative methods to observe and evaluate the users’ online behavior while they are interacting with your website or application. These methods are commonly used in UX research for different types of web projects depending on your needs.

A hand takes a sticky note with "Run a usability test" written on it

Usability Testing Methods

We will look more in-depth into the following six usability testing methods, which are especially important for website optimization:

Moderated Usability Testing

A testing method that can be conducted in person or remotely. It involves two main actors: a moderator who gives specific tasks and a participant who interacts with the website or application while giving his feedback out loud. The moderator can also observe as the participant completes the tasks and records the session. This method gives important qualitative information about the usability of the product, but it is costly and time-consuming with a limited number of participants.

Unmoderated Usability Testing

This testing method doesn’t require the presence of a moderator as the participant completes the tasks. However, the session is recorded and the participant is encouraged to give his feedback out loud as they go through each specific task. In contrast to the moderated usability testing, the unmoderated usability testing costs less time and resources and can include a bigger number of participants.

Five-Second Testing

This method tests the efficiency of a web page in conveying information. The participants are asked to view a single web page for five seconds. Afterwards, the moderator asks them questions about what they have seen. The web page is considered efficient if it successfully conveys the brand identity of the website, easy-to-digest information about the service or product presented on the page, and the reasons why these services or products are useful for the visitors. But if the participants in this test show difficulty in remembering any of this key information, it means the website needs to improve how it presents its brand identity and products.

Card Sorting Testing

This testing method helps us evaluate how well information architecture and navigation structure are and whether they make sense for users. It consists of asking the participants to arrange different, unorganized items under predefined labels or categories. This allows us to compare the existing website’s information architecture and navigation structure with the users’ answers on how they think it should have been structured. This is especially useful when redesigning a website and its hierarchical, tree-like structure.

First-Click Testing

It helps us measure how user-friendly a website or an application is when it comes to specific tasks. The participants are given a task to complete while the moderator observes their first click and evaluates how easy and clear it was for the participants to find their way. The position where the participants’ click is recorded and presented in the form of a heat map that shows where the highest and lowest number of clicks took place. This helps identify navigation problems and better position the most important links and buttons on a page, such as sign-up, add to cart, or purchase buttons.

Preference Testing

This method involves participants right from the beginning of a web project when several design proposals are still being examined. The moderator shows participants a number of different designs and asks them to choose their favorite one. The participants are then asked to give feedback on why they chose a specific design, what they liked and disliked.

These six methods present some of the most important tools for website optimization and they can be conducted online with participants from different parts of the world, which makes them rather feasible, cost-effective, and time-saving.

Sources:

  • W. Craig Tomlin – UX Optimization: Combining Behavioral UX and Usability Testing Data to Optimize Websites – Apress (2018)
  • Usabilityhub.com

Interested in reading more about technical communication? We have plenty more articles!

Would you like to improve your user experience and as a bonus turn internal costs into revenue? Then keep on reading!

What Is Digital Adoption?

First off, let’s define what digital adoption is. If you ask Forbes, they define it as “achieving a state within your company where all of your digital tools and assets are leveraged to the fullest extent”. In plain terms, we can say that it is all about getting your employees as well as your customers to use all your software tools and get the most out of your investment.

How Can You Use Digital Adoption to Improve the User Experience of Your Software?

A few years back, we at TimeLog decided to change our market-oriented focus. We wanted to have a more customer-oriented approach in contrast to the product focus we have had from the beginning. In addition, we wanted to find out how we could best help our users. Part of the new strategy was to look at the technical documentation in our online Help Center. We wanted to discover new ways to make it easier for users to find and read the material we had invested so much time in to produce for them.

That’s how we found WalkMe. Deciding to implement this software was the first step in improving our user experience, because it helps users immediately whilst using  the product.

And what is WalkMe, you might ask? For us a real game changer! It is a tool that can help you through your digital adoption processes. Besides, we use it to improve the user experience in our professional services automation software.

How Does WalkMe Improve the User Experience of TimeLog?

We use WalkMe to educate our users in the use of specific features in our software. We have introduced interactive guides that take the user by the hand and, step by step, show how the system works. It allows us to teach our users best practices, and it minimizes complexity, which in turn improves the ordinary users’ understanding of the system.


It is important to help all users no matter what their technical competence level and understanding of the system is. They can get the help they need here and now, and they do not need to contact our support first to learn more or navigate to a different page.

We not only produce the step by step guides, we can now produce step by step guides. We have several options to communicate important messages, we can point out important features and greet new users. When new users log into the system for the first time, they receive a welcome message, which offers guidance on how to get started in the system. It also introduces the onboarding guides, which helps the users to go through and learn the basics of the system.

TimeLog Welcome Message

How Did We Turn Software Costs Into Revenue?

We had not considered this option ourselves, until we had a few large customers requesting specific guides to explain their own processes. They saw a unique opportunity to guide their employees through their internal processes without creating Word documents and videos themselves.

In our user database, we already sorted our customers by specific companies and user IDs. This enables us to make guides visible only  to specific customers. When we received the first request for specific content, we identified our options, tested it in our own environment, and then realized we could apply this to our customers at an extra cost. The demand is surprisingly high, and we not alone cover the software costs, we are now slowly beginning to generate revenue from this area. We are now making money from helping our customers guiding their users in the way they want. They get the high data quality they need, and we both have happy people using TimeLog in the easiest and most efficient way. Win-win!

WalkMe Has Changed Our Business in Many Ways

Improved technical documentation and unexpected revenue are not the only benefits we have seen. We have seen numerous, and I list five of them here:

1. Less How To? Support and Improved Implementation Processes

After introducing the guides, the number of support tickets starting with “how can I…” has decreased. The more and the faster the users are educated in using the system, the more time is saved, and the more they can get out of it.

Our implementation consultants now use WalkMe for basic learning in the system. Customers can focus on the deeper functionality and processes in the system much faster, and in this way gain more from their investment in an implementation. At the same time, our consultants get more time to cover the more complex parts of the system and the customers’ internal processes and strategy during the workshops.

2. Improved Customer Communication

If you look in your own inbox, you probably have a number of unread newsletters, right? What do you do with them? If you are like most other people, you delete them. We simply do not have the time to take in all the information.

WalkMe allows us to communicate directly with all our users, and we can quickly inform about, e.g., new functionalities and guide them through new processes and features. In this way, we ensure knowledge sharing across the company, which eases the job for the customers’ super users in the system.

With a wide range of variables/settings, WalkMe enables us to communicate to different users at different times. We can e.g. differentiate on user rights, browser selection and specific areas within the system.

3. A Dedicated Team Takes Care of Everything

We have a specialized team, which is responsible for creating both the free standard guides for about 1,000 customers and the customer specific requests we receive. Our team continuously works on optimizing the way we use all the features with great help from the business developers at WalkMe. The team moreover improves the quality of existing guides and tests new features to see if they are beneficial to us and our customers.

4. Increased Customer Satisfaction

After introducing WalkMe, we have seen a rise in our customer satisfaction measured through NPS. The free and easy help has improved the use of the system for many customers, which provides them with happier employees and more reliable data. High data quality equals happy customers. Happy customers equal longer relationships. Longer relationships secure monthly recurring revenue. What’s not to like?

5. A Differentiator in Our Sales Process

Our business consultants use the guides in the sales processes to show how easy our system is. They get really good feedback, as the potential customers see that it can be easily implemented into their system and that it teaches all their employees the new processes without them needing to put extra energy and money into it.

Curious to Know More?

Feel free to reach out to me to learn more about our use of WalkMe, our implementation process and how we use it on a daily basis. Connect with me on LinkedIn or feel free to reach out to me via e-mail.

Would You Like to Know More About TimeLog?

TimeLog is a medium-sized software company based in Copenhagen, Denmark. We offer a software for time tracking, project management and invoicing, which allows you to get the overall overview of your resources and financial progress on projects. In short, we offer a professional services automation software. We have been in the business since 2001, and today we have 40+ employees in three countries. Feel free to visit our website to learn more about us.

We talk a lot about UX best practices in web design and a lot about which software to use to improve UX in web design… But what about software design? It is clear, websites and software have different user interfaces for different target groups. Besides, the software is not online, though this doesn’t mean user experience is not an important thing here as well. That being said, it is time to see the best practices to implement UX in software design.

What exactly is UX and UI?

User Interface

UI (User Interface) is a place where interaction between human and machine occurs. It can be material like the buttons of a machine or graphical, like a website, an application, but also a computer screen. In this article, we are going to talk about software, meaning a graphical user interface that is downloaded (usually on a computer) and that allows a group of people to improve their productivity (save time, avoid errors, make work easier and more efficient…). For instance, SDL Trados is a software that helps translators, Adobe Photoshop is for graphic designers.

UX (User eXperience) considers all the practices that make a user interface (UI) easier and more pleasant to use, including the design but also the way the software or interface is organized.

Why is UX so Important in Software Design?

UX is designed by software developers and is appreciated by users. Basically, the main goal of UX is to satisfy the user: developing functional software is no longer enough. Moreover, a UI can (and must) be continuously improved by its designers.

Nowadays, software developers, just as web developers, always have to think “user first”. In fact, UX is now part of common practices for the proper use of interfaces. It is not just a “bonus” anymore. Therefore, a whole strategy around the user must be implemented even before the start of the software development, because the way a project is planned, will define the designers’ and developers’ work.

What Are the Best UX Practices for Software Design?

The Basic Rules

In UX software design, it is always good to apply the basic UX practices. Setting up intuitive menus and organizing the interface in a logical way are part of it. This requires above all a good upstream work on the software architecture. Make sure that the software is a useful tool that helps to increase a company’s productivity and its employees to reduce errors, without having to spend time on troubleshooting make it understandable for all. Take that in mind while designing software. The keyword here is: intuitive. Nobody reads the documentation about how to use the product since it is way too much time consuming and boring.

To do so, think about the way the users will make use of it. For example, the users might have many screens and want to organize the panels in their own way. Therefore, they should be able to arrange their work surface as they wish by arranging the sizes of the different panels and being able to move them. Nowadays, many software programs allow users to set and save their own configurations. Furthermore, it should always be possible to easily reset these settings.

Ux designer working on UX design

Basic UX design practices also include the visual aspect such as readability, the contrast between background and font color, and the choice of character size and font. As for websites, prefer a non-serif, simple font and either a black font color on a white background or the other way round. Spending hours at the desk working with software can be very tiring for the eyes, therefore it is also part of the designers’ job to reduce the optical strain that screens require.

Functional Software

Of course, another fundamental thing is the proper functioning of the software. Well developed, thoughtfully coded software is the key to a fast, functional and bug-free final product. Of course, there will always be things to improve, new features to develop, bugs to fix. Released software is never a final version. That’s why you need to continuously interact with your users, which brings us to the next point.

Feedback in Both Ways

Another important thing in UX software design is to get feedback. In order to adapt the software to the needs of the majority, you need to know the issues and questions that have arisen when using the software. Surveys are a good way to get feedback from the users.

Also, you could be surprised by the way some of the users will interact with the interface. Indeed, they can cause errors, misunderstand, forget… This is why you should not forget to show clear error messages everywhere where there are input possibilities or where direct interaction between human and software takes place. The users should not only be aware of what they can do, what they should and should not do, but they should also get warning messages and explanations when they do something wrong.

Don’t Translate, Localize

If you decide to extend your software to different countries, it is not enough to just translate it into different languages: it has to be localized. Otherwise, it won’t meet UX criterias. This decision should be taken from the very beginning, well before the development phase. Localization is a whole process considering cultures, laws, ethnicities, technical constraints, and finally languages (locales). And there are some tips on how to improve UX and UI when making a product globally accessible.

The Right Words

Easy to use software is not always achieved through design. Words are just as important. As basic as it may sound, you have to be careful in choosing the terms for each feature, making sure that the term will be understood by everyone. For general terms, it’s not that complicated: just follow the same instructions as for most software: file, edit, view, help… But for the more specific functionalities, make sure you use the right terms in your software’s domain and that these terms are understandable for anyone using the software.

Sources :

https://uxplanet.org/how-user-experience-shapes-custom-software-development-78490943b0fc

https://uxdesign.cc/about-ux-in-software-design-aa2254287bac

https://techbeacon.com/app-dev-testing/9-ux-tips-strategies-developers

https://pixabay.com/fr/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=849804

As an English literature graduate who developed a rather unimaginable passion for technical writing many years ago, I was thrilled when I came across the Persona Method in Alan Cooper’s book “The Inmates Are Running The Asylum. Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy And How to Restore The Sanity” (1999).

The idea of combining fiction with product design instantly appealed to me. After all, technical communicators create information products, therefore applying this technique to that domain seemed like a good idea. However, I was really uncertain about the possibility to implement it in the business setting I found myself in. Would a small team of no-nonsense “technicians-assigned-to-act-as-tech-writers” be willing to adopt it?

Persona Method Yes or No

But before I delve into my own experiences, let me first answer the question you might have in mind now:

What Exactly Is the Persona Method?

Actually, although my introductory sentence may have implied it, the Personas that this technique refers to are not quite as fictional as The Great Gatsby or Oliver Twist.

For the most part, their personal details are based on hard facts: Marketing questionnaires, business survey, or similar means helped to establish demographic characteristics such as age, educational background, financial situation, and geographic location to identify the target group(s) for a product or service

The author mentioned above, Alan Cooper, generally credited with inventing the Persona Technique, first applied it to an IT setting.

His impetus was his increasing frustration with hard- and software that was not user-friendly at all, coupled with his observation that the software developers surrounding him did not consider users’ needs at all when coding and designing applications and interfaces.

As a consequence, he decided to confront these programmers with some characters that incorporated all the attributes of “average” users using the data collected in available customer surveys and marketing analyses. Cooper argued that if programmers were faced with individual “persons” rather than abstract data and were told to design for them, it would enable them to take user needs and user experience into account. Indeed, it is usually easier to relate to a human being (albeit a fictional one) than to statistics.

How to Create Personas?

In order to create a Persona, the statistical data described above has to be “personified” to define the target group(s) of a product or service.

Let me use an example to illustrate this: If the majority of users of a new hairdryer are female teenage high school students that live in Spain, a user persona might be 15-year-old Isabella from Barcelona. Fictional details are then added to this “average user” to make the Persona more complex and thus more credible as a “fellow human”: For instance, Isabella could be the member of a swimming team in her free time, and an avid watcher of YouTube videos and Netflix shows.

What Are the Benefits of Applying the Persona Method to Technical Writing?

At the moment, except for software development, where Alan Cooper first introduced it, the Persona Method is mainly used in marketing. However, the statistical data it is based on is also very valuable to technical communication (TC), as it reveals who we should be writing for. Furthermore, converting abstract information into concrete personas can also improve the quality of technical documents.

The field of technical writing is similar to software development and marketing in that the material – created by technical communicators (such as manuals and catalogs) – is also closely related to the user experience and mainly is to fulfill the needs and expectations of a certain target group.

Having a particular person(a) in mind makes it much easier to find the right tone and terminology. We can put ourselves in the readers’ shoes when instructing them how to use a product or service, addressing them in a way they understand.

For more information on Personas in UX design, visit https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/personas-why-and-how-you-should-use-them, for instance.

What Are the Challenges of Using the Persona Method in a Conventional TC Setting?

That said, motivating a team made up of innovative, open-minded “nerdy” programmers in charge of writing the code for a hip new application to attempt applying this technique should not be too difficult. Given the high percentage of “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” fans among them, it is safe to assume they are willing to relate to fictional characters anyway.

But What if the Business Setting and the Industry Are Not Quite as Hip & Cool and the Staff Not as Nerdy as Expected?

Back to my own situation at the time when I discovered the Persona Technique: My work environment was arguably as far removed from the (admittedly fairly stereotypical) image evoked above as one can imagine: A medium-sized company in the domain of mechanical engineering, with 99% of the staff made up of predominantly male, purely technically minded, down-to-earth employees.

My immediate enthusiasm in sharing the idea of applying the technique in this setting was severely curbed. But then I remembered what one of the two technicians (let us call him Simon) assigned to the technical documentation team had told me earlier during our lunch break when I had naively asked him what his favorite novel was:
“Are you kidding me??? What’s the point in dealing with stories that weirdos with too much time on their hands felt the urge to write down, about strange characters they made up in their twisted minds?!”
In the end, however, my curiosity won over.

First, I started looking for success stories of the use of the Persona Technique outside of agile work environments and marketing for encouragement. I actually came up with some results, such as a library that used the Persona Technique.

However, in this particular case, it depends on the willingness of the staff to account for a certain amount of fiction in their daily surroundings is still rather apparent…

Then, since the tech writing team was to be my target group now, I started to consider their needs.

I came up with the following guidelines for my hands-on experiment:

  1. Do not overwhelm the staff
  2. Give them something they can relate to
  3. Suggest, but do not impose

…and this is how I approached the challenge:

  1. Although Alan Cooper suggests using more than one persona to cover a range of user needs, I decided to use only one. One reason for this was that the data I had unearthed about the users of the said machines revealed that the target group was pretty uniform. It was mostly made up of middle-aged men without higher education – and by “mostly”, I mean that there was almost no exception. Besides, I wanted to keep the introduction of this new method as low key as possible, so as not to upset the team members by putting several exotic characters on display which would soon get on their nerves.
  2. It was clear that the “prototypical user” had to be someone the team could relate to, that is, preferably a local person with a plausible background. So, I came up with “Matze” (a common nickname for the German first name “Matthias”), a 43-year-old married man, father of two children who grew up and still lived about 60 miles from the company headquarters. Aside from his job as machine operator, he also loved soccer. A life-size photograph of a guy who matched this description had easily been found and a mini bio had been added to it, along with some of his quotes and his expectations regarding user manuals for the machines he worked with.
  3. I turned this information into a huge poster that I put up on one of the office walls I shared with Simon and the other two tech writers. I did this in late December when my coworkers had already left for their holiday. On their return after New-Year’s day, they were slightly surprised and amused but studied the poster with interest – even if only as an excuse for a coffee break at first. There were no discussions about taking “Matze” off the wall again, and after a while, whenever one of them was handed product information by the product developers, comments such as “Hey, Matze would not understand this!” – “Matze wouldn’t be able to use this info, let’s leave it out” became commonplace in the office. Even though it was more of a tongue-in-cheek attitude at the beginning, we (above all Simon) kept referring to “Matze” in similar cases.

I leave it to you to decide whether my story is a “success story” or not, but I would like to encourage you to share your own experiences with me, either with the Persona Technique or with other approaches that, for some of us, might be just as exciting as the Persona Technique was to me.

As for myself, I was satisfied with the outcome, and I would be even more satisfied if I knew that one or two of the product developers read “Matze’s” comments as well, maybe getting a better idea of what technical documentation really aims at.

And what about you? Feel free to share your experience below with the Persona Method.