Usability and the Craft of Technical Communication

I would be remiss if I didn’t address the topic of usability. I say this mostly because it was and is a personal crusade of Karla Kitalong, my thesis advisor at University of Central Florida (now at Michigan Tech), and a message that was instilled among the tech writing grad students while I was there.

What is usability in the tech writing sense? It actually covers a lot of real estate, depending on what sort of material and medium you are creating. For instance, if you’re creating a help menu with the world’s cleanest high-impact graphics but the text of the help reads like the King James Bible, your product is effectively useless.

Take another example: say you’re creating a fact sheet for a new product and you leave out some crucial piece(s) of information, like what it does, why it’s better than the competition, what it costs, or how you contact the company to buy it. Worse, the information that IS provided, like the warranty and safety notices, are featured prominently at the top of the page, in text nearly as large as the product name.

Or this: you’ve got a high-quality online technical manual with excellent graphics that elegantly describes how to install an automotive product that your company is selling overseas; however, the users–automotive mechanics–seldom have computers handy in their shops and no effort has been made to provide a print version or to translate it into your users’ language.

Or this: your company has just decided that, due to new health care laws, it has to change what benefits it offers employees–and even cut some of the most popular options–and you’ve created an upbeat, friendly marketing document that is light on facts and heavy on “positive messaging.”

In the end, you can see the common denominator of these storiesusability is not about the originator of the product, but the user and his or her wants and needs. Going back to the examples above, one can see that usability encompasses:

  • Style and vocabulary
  • Visual appeal
  • Content
  • Layout
  • Format/delivery method
  • Language
  • Tone

This is why one of my earlier posts addressed “the two most important questions” a tech writer can ask when being assigned a new project:

  1. Who is my audience?
  2. What do I want them to do with the information?

The “who” question also tends to answer things like format, content, language, style, and tone. The outcome question can affect your visual appeal and content.

An obvious question comes up: where do I get this sort of information? How do I know what’s appropriate for my audience? Well, some of this you can get from your management, some from your users directly, some you can research, and some of it is pure art. Knowing your audience is one of the most important skills you can master because the first thing it does is help you understand what level of information you need to provide, in what tone, and at what length. An office party announcement can be short and upbeat; the healthcare example above should be factual, complete, and as free from commentary as possible. An engineer who has to assemble a complex piece of hardware needs full technical specifications, a tool list, MSDS, caution and warning notices, and visual diagrams of the hardware in question; an executive who has to approve the marketing campaign for the hardware generally wants a PowerPoint slide or two, with a few backups, just in case you’ve got a manager who likes to delve into the details.

Notice that last line. Usability can be a generic exercise–keeping things high-level for an executive summary, bringing in more detail for execution–but that is not always a given. Sometimes you have to know the personalities and wants of the audience in question. This is obviously easier when you’ve got a message for one or two people compared to several thousand employees. You won’t always hit the mark, but the trick, as always, is to provide just enough information to ensure that your user/reader/audience reacts in the way that you want and expect.

When it comes to visual literacy, that is often an art left to graphic designers if the product requires a lot of imagery, like a technical manual or a product fact sheet. And while there are always exceptions to the rule, some basics can usually be counted on for a Western audience, where people read top to bottom, left to right. Different rules apply, of course, if you’re working in East Asia or the Middle East, where reading is up and down or right to left. In those cases, you should assume that your users are going in with those assumptions. Why does this matter?

Let’s go back to the fact sheet example above, where the warranty and safety notices were placed in large print at the top of the page. If the first thing a reader sees are the safety notices and warranty in large pritn, mightn’t they get the impression that your product is deficient or dangerous somehow? As Orson Welles put it in Citizen Kane, “If the headline is bigger, that makes the story bigger.” In similar fashion, Western readers have unconsciously absorbed the lesson that Words In Large Print or ALL CAPS are more important than words in small print. Likewise, the most important message is usually at the top of the page, even if that “message” is simply a picture of your product, because that will be the first thing most readers’ eyes are drawn to.

Visual literacy also can apply to movies. Western moviegoers and TV watchers have gotten used to things like dissolves, cuts, voice-overs, and closeups as means of advancing or telling a story, even if that story is “how to exit this plane in the event of an emergency.” For example, a closeup on a particular person or object causes the “importance” of the person/object to increase. We also expect that if captions or subtitles are to be used, they will appear at the bottom of the screen, not blocking important parts of the action.

As always, the technical communicator’s goal is to convey useful information to an audience so that the audience is able to take appropriate action based on that information. Making that information “usable” has many components, and the better you are at understanding and executing them, the more likely it is that your products will be accepted, appreciated, and used.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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1 Response to Usability and the Craft of Technical Communication

  1. This is a great explanation of usability in tech writing. You’ve covered the bases and linked it (appropriately) to visual literacy. Good work…

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