Usability Testing on Technical Documents

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

If you're about to release a manual or a document, wouldn't you like to make sure that it's effective and accurate? In this lesson, we learn about usability testing, the process by which technical writing can be tested.

A Manual Gone Wrong

We've all been there. Whether it is a computer program, a children's toy, or even flat-packed furniture, just about everyone has sighed in frustration and wondered if anyone actually reads terrible product instructions before they send it out. Well, at least I have. The answer is probably not one we'd like to hear. The fact is that smart companies invest serious money into usability testing, especially when it comes to writing their manuals.

Usability testing is the term used to describe the steps that a company goes through to make sure people can actually use the product. After all, if it is too difficult to use, the product won't sell. In this lesson, we're going to take a look at the importance of usability testing on technical documents. We'll start by briefly reviewing the point of even having a technical document before moving on to how usability testing affects those documents.

The Purpose of Technical Writing

Have you ever tried to learn how to make a family recipe from your grandmother? If you're lucky, the recipe includes some objective measurements such as cups, ounces, and teaspoons. Your grandmother's brownie recipe probably wouldn't transfer well to technical writing if she's just telling you to add a dash of this and a scoop of that.

This is because the point of technical writing is to quickly and efficiently transfer knowledge of a process or information. Recipes that you typically find in a cookbook are really just technical descriptions. You find out exactly how much of each ingredient to use, what temperature to cook it, and how long to let the recipe cook. You could expect anyone who has a basic knowledge of cooking to be able to follow a recipe. That's the goal of any technical writing. Anyone with a basic knowledge of the field should be able to finish the task.

The Importance of Usability Testing

However, cookbook publishers don't just copy and paste a bunch of recipes. Instead, they have test kitchens where people who are not chefs recreate the recipes from the books by just following the directions at hand. This is the culinary equivalent of usability testing. The testers just do what is suggested in the text. They don't apply any special techniques unless they are mentioned. If, along the way, they encounter a step that requires clarification or revision, they make a note of it.

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