|October 2006 issue (Vol 12, No. 2)
About the Author
The User Edit Method for Evaluating the Usability of Documentation
By Chauncey Wilson, The MathWorks, Inc.
A “user edit” (also known as a “usability edit) enables you to evaluate the usability of documentation (Schriver, 1991). Participants in a user edit study can either think aloud as they use the documentation to complete tasks or they can mark up the pages of the documentation to indicate where they had problems. The think-aloud protocols or marked-up pages are then reviewed for usability problems. The user edit report lists the problems and recommendations about how to improve the usability of the documentation.
Marshall Atlas (1981) was the first to describe the user edit as a type of verbal protocol method that could be used to understand the usability of documentation. His article in the IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication is considered a classic though few people actually seem to know about the method (it is seldom mentioned in HCI and UCD references). Atlas (1998) wrote a retrospective on his user edit method in the Journal of Computer Documentation where he discussed the question “Why hasn’t it [the 1981 user edit paper] had more impact on product documentation?” Other colleagues joined Atlas in the user edit retrospective and I would recommend that anyone interested in the history of documentation usability read the 1998 Journal of Computer Documentation in examining the user edit from the perspectives of five prominent documentation specialists (you can access it from the ACM Digital Library if either you or your organization has an account).
The user edit is perhaps the most powerful tool for finding usability problems in documentation. Soderston (1985) argues (and I agree with her) that this method finds significant problems in documentation, even after several technical peer reviews. She stated, “A user edit is a way of ensuring quality, not measuring it after the fact.”
The user edit method can be used to find problems like:
There are two main approaches for conducting a user edit.
Here are some basic instructions for the two approaches.
Think-aloud User Edit Procedures
A typical procedure for a think-aloud user edit study would be (Atlas, 1981; Soderston, 1985: Schriver, 1991):
Individual Mark-up Approach to a User Edit
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, our usability team at Digital Equipment Corporation used a variation of this method where participants would mark up documents using a coding scheme like the one in Figure 1.This coding scheme could be presented on paper or electronically so you could send users a list of tasks and pages in the documentation that you want them to read and ask them to mark-up the pages using codes similar to the ones in Figure 1.
The codes in the mark-up technique must be simple and memorable since your participants might be alone when doing a user edit. It is good to provide contact information if participants have questions about the process.
Advantages of the User Edit
The user edit:
Disadvantages of the User Edit
The user edit:
Atlas, M. (1981). The user edit: Making manuals easier to use. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 24:1 (March): 28-29.
Atlas, M. (1998). The user edit revisited, or “if we’re so smart, why ain’t we rich?”. Journal of Computer Documentation. 22:3 (August). ACM Press: New York, NY. 21-24.
Schriver, K. A. (1991). Plain Language for Expert or lay audiences: Designing text using User Edit. (Technical Report Number 46) Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon University, Communications Design Center.
Soderston, C. (1985). The user edit: A new level. Technical Communication, 1st Quarter, 16-18.
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