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Usability is the art of making sure that any kind of communication deliverable (e.g. a website, a handbook, a user guide, etc.) is intuitive, easy-to-use , and helps users achieve their goals. Usability is part of the broader discipline known as User Experience Design (or UX), which encompasses all aspects of the look, feel, and information contained in a communication deliverable. Usability testing, the process by which a communication deliverable is assessed, however, remains at the core of this discipline.

Traditionally, usability has been a practice utilized by software designers and engineers to test complex technologies before they go to market. In order to perform usability testing, test users that fit the basic demographics of target consumers (e.g. age, region, occupation, languages spoken, disability status, etc.) are recruited. These test users are organized into “user segments” or demographic groups that fit particular criteria (e.g. young adult, Midwestern college students who speak English as a second language). Test users are then run through a battery of tests to ensure that the technology being developed is functional.

With the publication of Jakob Nielsen’s Usability Engineering in 1993 (https://www.nngroup.com/books/usability-engineering/), however, this process began to evolve. Test users are now recruited earlier in the design process and thus have more of an impact on the shape the technology in development takes. In addition, Nielsen has developed five factors for judging whether a given communication deliverable is usable or not:

  • Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?
  • Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
  • Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they reestablish proficiency?
  • Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?
  • Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?

Source: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/usability-101-introduction-to-usability/.

Since the World Wide Web has become a primary means of communication and commerce, and the website has become one of the primary communication deliverables that usability researchers are concerned with. With the dramatic increase in information available to users of the Web, new methods have also been created for assessing the value of this information.

Michael Albers, a leader in the area of information design, has developed the following heuristic for what he calls “multidimensional audience analysis,” or the process of assessing how people make use of information (Albers, M. J., 2003). Multidimensional Audience Analysis for Dynamic Information. Journal Of Technical Writing & Communication, 33(3), (pp. 268-9).

  • Knowledge dimension: What subject matter expertise do users need to understand the information being presented?
  • Detail dimension: How much specific detail does the user want regarding the information they are seeking?
  • Cognitive ability: What is the reading ability and education level of the user. Do they have any physical or mental limitations that may affect their ability to understand the information?
  • Social or cultural aspects: What is the social or cultural background of the user, and how does that impact their use of the information.

As Rex Hartson and Pardha Pyla explain in The UX Book: Process and Guidelines for Ensuring a Quality User Experience, the broader discipline of UX also includes such aspects of communication as:

  • visual design of webpages and other types of interfaces
  • information architecture or ways information is organized and displayed
  • content strategy or plans for the development and distribution of effective content within webpages and social media
  • user research or in-depth field studies into the culture of workplaces and other places users dwell
  • usability testing or rigorous testing with test users similar to what Nielsen developed
  • accessibility or ensuring that technology is usable by persons with disabilities

Usability and User Experience Research

Figure 1: Essentials of User Experience (via https://www.homestead.com/blog/06/2013/ux-101-what-user-experience-infographic#.VL3Mav3F-Go)

At its core, however, UX is still primarily concerned with ensuring that users have a satisfying, error-free experience with technology. Within the field of technical communication, movements like Plain Language (https://notebook.stc.org/at-the-intersection-of-plain-language-and-technical-communication/) have also sought to improve all forms of written communication so that documentation is universally understandable by any audience. Similarly, the adoption of Section 508 regulations (https://www.section508.gov/) require that all federal- and state-maintained websites are accessible to persons with disabilities.

UX is also driven by the world of business. Nearly every major corporation employs teams of UX professionals in the design and deployment of their website. Mobile applications designed by companies are rigorously tested to ensure that they are compelling to target consumers. Emerging technologies like wearable body sensors are created and tested in corporate labs the world over. In truth, the non-profit, governmental, and education spheres have lagged behind in the usage and employment of UX professionals. Regardless, it is estimated that even in the for-profit world, as much as 97% of websites fail at basic usability (https://blogs.forrester.com/adele_sage/12-03-15-lessons_learned_from_1500_website_user_experience_reviews).

Concerning the most common usability problems with websites, Jakob Nielsen has identified ten:

  1. Using fonts that are too small or are difficult to read
  2. Creating links that don’t clearly signal to users that they are links
  3. Using Flash
  4. Creating content that is too lengthy and wordy
  5. Using search engines that don’t work properly
  6. Creating websites that don’t work properly with the most common Internet browsers (e.g. Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, and Safari).
  7. Using web forms that don’t work property (e.g. asking users to create password, but not clearly explaining what kinds of characters are required)
  8. Not including contact information for the organization who created and/or maintains the site
  9. Not including images that are large enough for users to see clearly

(via https://www.nngroup.com/articles/top-ten-web-design-mistakes-of-2005/)

As far as activities that UX professionals perform on a daily basis, usability testing remains a primary one. Any form of communication deliverable can be usability tested using steps like the following:

  1. Define goals or tasks that users should be able to complete with the communication deliverable. Examples might include finding a certain piece of information, signing up for a newsletter, learning how to use your new smartphone, or setting up an account. A sound usability test asks users to complete about 7-10 major tasks. You should also include users in this step by conducting some preliminary interviews to uncover what goals users have for the type of deliverable you’re testing (e.g. a college website, a flyer for a student organization, the information contained in a piece of technology such as a smartphone or tablet, etc.).
  2. Write each of your tasks down as imperative sentences that you will read to users. Examples might include “sign up for the organization’s newsletter,” or “learn how to sign up for a class.” Each sentence should be simple enough to be easily understood by users, but should represent a task that is a key goal of the communication deliverable.
  3. Recruit people who fit the primary demographics of the target audiences for the communication deliverable. You should try to recruit at least 5 total users, and if you have a lot of different user segments (e.g. different ages, regions, occupations, languages spoken, or disability status), you should make sure you recruit at least one person from each segment.
  4. Meet with each user and two researchers to run your usability tests. One researcher should lead the user through the task and should ask the user why they completed each task in the way that they did, or what they thought about while they were completing the task (you can ask participants to do this while they’re completing each task, after they complete each task, or at the end of the test. There are pros and cons to each approach: https://www.usability.gov/how-to-and-tools/methods/running-usability-tests.html). The other researcher should take detailed notes on what users struggled with, what they enjoyed, and overall impressions of the test. There are also various technologies available to help you record usability tests: https://www.usefulusability.com/24-usability-testing-tools/.
  5. Analyze your results. Try to identify patterns in user responses to your communication deliverable. Also pay attention to differences between individual users and try to identify the source of these differences. Many times, differences in the ways users respond are key to understanding the needs of specific user segments.
  6. Use your results to improve the user experience of your communication deliverable by improving aspects of it that users struggled with and emphasizing aspects they enjoyed. Future testing is recommended as well. UX is an ongoing process. Like all forms of writing and communication, it’s never really finished.

In conclusion, UX is really a complex series of research methods that, individually, require years to learn. That being said, all communicators should know a little bit about UX to ensure that they are communicating in ways that are usable to their target audiences. The following resources offer a large amount of free information on how to create usable, accessible communication deliverables.

UX Resources

Usability.gov (https://www.usability.gov/) - “User experience (UX) focuses on having a deep understanding of users, what they need, what they value, their abilities, and also their limitations.  It also takes into account the business goals and objectives of the group managing the project. UX best practices promote improving the quality of the user’s interaction with and perceptions of your product and any related services.”

Boxes and Arrows (https://boxesandarrows.com/) - “Boxes and Arrows is devoted to the practice, innovation, and discussion of design; including graphic design, interaction design, information architecture and the design of business. Since 2001, it’s been a peer-written journal promoting contributors who want to provoke thinking, push limits, and teach a few things along the way.”

NN Group (https://www.nngroup.com/) - “NN/g conducts groundbreaking research, evaluates user interfaces, and reports real findings – not what's popular or expected. With our approach, NN/g will help you create better experiences for real people and improve the bottom line for your business.”

PlainLanguage.gov (https://www.plainlanguage.gov/) - “The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) is a community of federal employees dedicated to the idea that citizens deserve clear communications from government. We first developed this document in the mid-90s. We continue to revise it every few years to provide updated advice on clear communication. “

Section508.gov (https://www.section508.gov/) - “Section 508 requires that Federal agencies’ electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities. IT Accessibility & Workforce Division, in the U.S. General Services Administration’s Office of Governmentwide Policy, has been charged with the task of educating Federal employees and building the infrastructure necessary to support Section 508 implementation. Using this web site, Federal employees and the public can access resources for understanding and implementing the requirements of Section 508.”