This article was originally published in the August 2009 issue (Vol 14, No. 3)
About the Authors
Debarshi Gupta Biswas has close to ten years' experience in developing technical documentation on different lines of business and for varied sets of audience. Currently, he is a Senior Technical Communicator at Cognizant Technology Solutions.
Suranjana Dasgupta has more than twelve years' experience as a technical writer. Currently, she leads the Technical Communication practice of the Kolkata (India) office of Cognizant Technology Solutions.
Adopting Documentation Usability Techniques to Alleviate Cognitive Friction
By Debarshi Gupta Biswas and Suranjana Dasgupta, Content and Design Services, Cognizant Technology Solutions
The Digital Divide and Technical Communicators
In his famous book, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity, Alan Cooper, one of the greatest advocates of Interaction Design, introduced the term: "Cognitive Friction". He defined Cognitive Friction as "the resistance encountered by a human intellect when it engages with a complex system of rules that change as the problem changes. Software interaction is very high in cognitive friction".
This cognitive friction results in a digital divide between the software development community and software users. The digital divide, in turn, has a direct correlation with the usability of the application: how well can the software users learn and use the application or the product to perform their tasks and accomplish their goals. Today's Technical Communicators can help bridge this divide and reduce cognitive friction by applying industry-acclaimed usability techniques to the documentation they produce toward accelerating user acceptance of the product. Less cognitive friction means better user adoption that results in fewer calls to tech support, higher customer satisfaction, and in the long run, better brand loyalty.
This Article describes how documentation usability combined with heuristics can play a pivotal role in producing user-centered technical documentation that fosters a satisfying user experience.
Usable Documentation Accommodates How Users Think
Studies by Knowledge Solutions, a leading provider of knowledge transfer and end-user adoption solutions, indicate that the astounding figure of IT projects failing, late, or over budget could be slashed by almost a third if more attention was paid to user adoption. Gartner, the world's leading IT research and advisory organization, believes companies that spend more on application development but less on factors related to user adoption put projects at increased risk of failure. According to a study conducted in 2008 by the Sand Hill Group and Neochange, two leading consulting firms, the most critical factor for the success and return-on-investment of an IT project is effective user adoption.
Examples such as these have very interesting ramifications from a documentation perspective. Documentation can be effectively used to improve end-user adoption. Even the best software in the world with the most sophisticated features fails if people do not use it. And solid documentation can really help an unintuitive application overcome the challenge of poor usability. In a situation such as this, a Technical Communicator can suddenly become the most important player in ensuring the success of a product by assisting the users in performing their tasks with clear and crisp instruction-driven documentation.
Documentation that adheres to established usability principles, and that evolves beyond the conventional framework of detailed user's guides nobody cares to read, can go a step further in matching the users' mental model. This helps the users to find information quickly rather than following the wrong path and ending up frustrated. In his popular blog on the latest trends in technical communication, I'd Rather Be Writing, Tom Johnson writes:
In a nutshell, documentation should always address the correct emotional state of the users and should be predictable enough to point the users to the correct answer at their hour of need. Otherwise users would decide to wait on hold for technical support rather than leveraging the all-encompassing documentation to understand how a specific feature of an application works!
Heuristics for User-Centered Documentation
There is no cut-and-dried set of heuristic principles for evaluating the usability of documentation. Different opinionated discussion groups have come up with their own subjective list of usability criteria. the key and broadly representative findings. Following is a compilation that lists some of the key and broadly representative findings.
Documentation should match the real world
Cognitive scientists have studied mental models to understand how human beings make decisions in a variety of environments. Usability - the effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction with which users accomplish specified goals in a given environment - is connected to the mental model of the users to the extent that it predicts the action of an application as the users work on it. A classic example of how much the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) experts have adapted the study of mental models to software usability is the simple Windows Calculator that has similar functionality and user experience to a hand-held calculator familiar to all of us.
Documentation, too, should be developed in such a way that it matches the mental model of the people that will use it to understand an application. Traditional documentation is based on the foundational assumption that users learn in a structured and linear fashion. Studies reveal that, while reading documentation, users do not follow a predictable sequence, do not read every word, and actually start acting on the information within a very short time. Increased usability in documentation design based on the mental model of the users has the potential to pay back handsomely in addressing the needs of these "impatient" users. To match the expectations of the real world, the documentation should have the following major attributes:
Documentation should go hand-in-hand with the product
As soon as the users see part of the user interface, they immediately set their own expectations on what to look up in the documentation. Here are a few items that can ensure that documentation meets user expectations:
Documentation should be succinct
Usable documentation is always short and snappy. It provides information economically, but not at the expense of being incomprehensible, or omitting critical/useful information to reduce length. Documentation must be purposeful so that users get what need. In his article Heuristic Inspections for Documentation - 10 Recommended Documentation Heuristics, Vesa Purho sums it up wonderfully: "people working on a rooftop installing some hardware would not necessarily be delighted with nice multimedia CD-ROMs but prefer a laminated quick reference card".
To develop succinct documentation, Technical Communicators must understand their audience well enough to identify what their needs are, and predict how the users expect to accomplish their goals. The documentation should also provide the following:
Documentation should be task-oriented and user-focused
Usable documentation does not describe the product in meticulous detail, and is structured around the tasks that the users are expected to perform within the application. It should be organized by a logical grouping of tasks presented in a language familiar to the users. Documentation should be developed using a structured process that starts with the big picture and adds lower level of details. It should be free from excessively complicated references to other documentation modules.
Additionally, the documentation must not forget to address the unique needs of every set of users. It should support users with varying levels of knowledge on the domain and tasks. Technical Communicators must understand the users' characteristics to successfully determine what documentation will work best for them. In her article, titled Developing Usable User Documentation, Rachel Campbell outlines the following checklist for developing a task matrix mapped to the user population:
Documentation design should not be an afterthought
Standardizing the overall layout of documentation, especially in a multi-writer scenario, is critical to presenting information in a coherent form. Design acts as a means to an end: connecting the Technical Communicator that has information with the users that need it. Good design ensures that the users who will read the documentation can quickly get what they need to accomplish their tasks. Here are a few tips to ensure good and usable document design:
Usability Testing for Documentation
In order to ensure that the documentation caters to the needs of its users, it must be safeguarded by a robust quality assurance system. Testing the usability of documentation is a practical solution to the documentation challenges faced by today's organizations.
Common Documentation Usability Testing Techniques
A document with a pretty look-and-feel that does not help its users accomplish their intended goals is frustrating for its audience. Here are a few common techniques that can be used as a litmus test to identify if a document is usable:
Pilot Study on the ROI of Documentation Usability Testing
Elaine Ostrander conducted a study to identify the return on investment (ROI) with regard to documentation usability testing. The study was based on an over-the-shoulder usability testing of documentation, and formal laboratory study was not conducted. 11 participants from at least four different countries, with an average experience of over 10 years in usability testing, volunteered for the study. They were given a list of stages in usability testing, and asked to indicate the minimum, maximum, and average amount of time spent on each stage, and the corresponding hourly cost for each stage
The participants were also asked to report benefits of usability testing, although most of them could not quantify the benefits.
The study revealed that different stages of testing require varying degrees of labor and that the total cost of usability testing can vary widely. It also indicated that all the participants agreed on the following benefits of usability testing of documentation:
91% of the participants agreed on these benefits:
73% of the participants agreed on these benefits:
Although there was low response on a quantitative measure of each benefit, the study generated a strong indication that the return on investment for performing usability testing of documentation was too large to be neglected.
Usability is the combination of effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction with which the users accomplish defined goals in a given environment. User-centered documentation matches the users' mental model, thereby helping the users find information they want quickly and easily in their hour of need.
The list of documentation usability criteria is fairly subjective at this time, and various opinionated discussion groups have contributed to this. Usable documentation is based on a deep understanding of the users' tasks, and this understanding can only be gained through interviewing representative users. Applying information architecture techniques, the content within documentation should be properly chunked so that the users can assimilate the information properly. Procedural guides should have a well-defined and searchable index that enables users to connect key application terms to their correct context.
User-friendly documentation is always succinct, but never at the expense of omitting critical/useful information. It should be developed using a structured process so that it starts with the big picture and gradually adds lower level of details, addressing the needs of every unique group of users. Finally, the documentation must be tested among a representative group of users, and their feedback should be incorporated to make sure that it has met all of the major usability criteria.
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