Usability testing is one of the best ways of evaluating the quality of a document. A technical writer can use usability testing to ensure user-centered writing. Testing validates documentation by examining successful task completion, identifying any critical errors, determining the time it takes to complete a task, reader satisfaction using the document, and collecting recommendations for necessary improvements.
The metrics defined and collected by the technical communicator will determine how to evaluate successful comprehension and task completion. These metrics are generally both qualitative and quantitative depending on how the information is collected and measured. Set up goals for data collection, metrics, and analysis before usability testing. Consider that documentation can be tested using a variety of delivery methods such as smartphones, tablets, computers, printed versions, web pages, etc. Ask yourself how will your end-user most likely use the document?
User observation can be collected using qualitative methods letting a test administrator see how a user will react to the instructions in the document. Are they struggling and need to scroll back and forth? When the tester provides feedback, are they reflecting this in their observations on your document? Each person who tests your document may, or may not, feel that a qualitative aspect is important.
A user’s reaction to document use is important because some users may stop using a document if they need to scroll or turn pages constantly. Others may not. Observation of a document tester is especially important if you are using only a single tester. The smaller the test group, the higher the risk that feedback can be myopic and not reflect all readers’ experiences.
Unfortunately, we don’t always have time or the resources to do usability testing depending on project size, project milestones, release dates, and type of technical documentation. Nevertheless, new technical writers and students should consider even single user basic testing scenarios when they can. Usability testing is a great way for new technical writers to understand what works and doesn’t work in their documents.
Large documentation projects may employ usability testing, especially if there is a lot at stake. Usability testing requires buy-in by management to be successful because of the allocation of resources and stakeholders. Not all management buys into usability testing. Unfortunately, most technical documentation projects are quickly written, updated, or reviewed by someone who may not be an editor, and the document goes out to the intended audience without testing. This isn’t a big deal on a small document but can lead to quality issues in large documents. The importance of testing does depend on the document, purpose, and intended update schedule if any.
One of the best ways to think about the value of usability testing is that you are doing a test run with readers to catch catastrophic issues. This is particularly useful with standard operating procedures (SOPs) or any step-by-step instructions for dangerous occupations, hazardous locations, or safety-related situations. Any document can benefit from usability testing, but technical writing failure is particularly visible with SOPs or instructions. This is critical in industries where a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of data and information can lead to catastrophic failure (loss of finances, loss of property, or loss of life).
To start testing, recruit a pool of participants that fit the profile audience of the readers you are writing for. This provides the best results. The usability testing participants, if possible, should perform the testing under the same conditions a reader would use the document. Even a single qualified participant can help identify any clarity issues a document has.
For students, new technical writers, or small businesses who decide usability testing is for them, I stress using a single reader to save money and time as long as the reader is similar to the intended audience. Only an organization can judge whether they need a large testing sample based on their own usability testing practices and the complexity of their document.
Whatever an organization decides to do with usability testing, remember it is a team effort with all stakeholders. No one works in a vacuum, especially technical writers. The testing process needs both management and the technical communicator’s buy-in to work. Students should use it in their work as often as they can until they get used to writing for a variety of audiences. Remember, if there is a team of technical writers and graphic artists that are designing a document, usability testing can save money by allowing any identified readability problems to be corrected quickly and efficiently before document release. Poorly written documents can reflect negatively on an organization, the technical writer, and ultimately can place a user at risk.
Lu Kondor has worked as a technical writer for more than 20 years for major corporations. She has a Doctorate in Business Management and has worked in a large variety of organizations including entertainment, software, electric utility, manufacturing, oil and gas, chemical, and nuclear process industries. She is an adjunct lecturer in Advanced Technical Writing as well as Information Design for more than 14 years.