Usability Interface
Getting Started With Usability

by David Dick, edited by Judy Blostein
Reprinted from Usability Interface, Vol 5, No. 2, October 1998

I am a technical writer who works for a telecommunications company. I work for the Network Operations department, writing user guides and installation guides for telecommunications engineers and network designers. I am also a usability enthusiast who enjoys learning the fundamentals of usability, designing user interfaces, and the human factors of information systems.

Practical experience and training helps me to go beyond usability fundamentals. I have learned about usability from books, news groups on the Internet, and university courses. Putting usability to practice means applying the lessons I have learned to small projects that have minimal impact on systems and services, but provide me with an opportunity to gain experience.

Making usability a common practice of the product life cycle does not happen immediately. As a matter of fact, it may take years because of the importance of establishing credibility and gaining the cooperation of many people. Improving usability costs money but is far cheaper than producing a product that creates havoc in the organization and frustration for users.

My story begins in 1995 with a project to adapt a vendor's user guide for an encryptor with instructions on the installation and configuration of specific parameters. (An encryptor is a device that transforms data into a form that is readable only by someone with a decryption key.) The audience had minimal or no knowledge of encryption. When my work was completed, I evaluated the user guide with employee volunteers from several departments throughout the company.
Everyone was convinced that the user guide would satisfy users. However, the first 100 encryptors sent to users resulted in many calls to the customer support center. Lesson learned: employees are not representative of actual users. To solve the problem, I studied how to write better user documentation, which led me to the subject of usability.

In 1996, a fellow technical writer and I visited an actual user of the encryptor to conduct a usability test. The visit was an overwhelming experience in terms of what we saw and learned. Our report convinced product management to investigate how to improve the ordering process, the training of help desk staff and field technicians to support the encryptor, and documentation quality. As a result, the order and registration process was simplified, the help desk and field technicians were trained, and an installation guide was written. Lesson learned: always conduct task analysis and site visits, and involve relevant staff.

In 1997, product management asked me to write two papers dealing with usability testing for use with an improved method of product development. I learned how to structure the papers from ISO 9241-11 standards and with the help of some usability professionals. I gave a presentation on the fundamentals of usability. Although only 10 people attended, it was a significant beginning. Lesson learned: creating usability standards and procedures never becomes common practice only with education.

As the word 'usability' spread throughout the company, it became a common buzzword of management. Consultants were hired to conduct usability tests on a variety of products. Meanwhile, I continued my work with usability on a variety of projects for Network Operations and improved usability in this area.

In January 1998, a project manager from another department asked me to share my skills and to help developers to redesign a management system for that famous encryptor mentioned above. The project was significant because it meant improving quality of service for the network and internal users. I was invited to work with developers to create a prototype and evaluate its usability.

The project manager conducted site visits and task analysis. I helped the developers to simplify the system's user interface, which in turn, helped to simplify my work writing the documentation. Not having a sophisticated usability lab, I used a spare office cubicle and a workstation. To conduct my tests, I provided users with the prototype and a user guide. My reports categorized the users' problems, comments, and suggestions to improve the system and user interface. I shared my reports with the developers, quality assurance staff, and with the project manager. Lesson learned: co-operation and diplomacy to suggest improvements wins advocates. After several months of testing and improvements, the new system is running very well, to the satisfaction of users, developers, and the project manager.

Today fewer users ask for help to install and configure the encryptor. This is a direct result of our usability efforts to help users get better training, and that network operators have an improved system to monitor encryptors. Meanwhile, I am helping to integrate usability into the company's product life cycle. This time, creating new processes and standards is winning acceptance.

David is a senior Technical Writer. He can be reached at David.Dick@village.uunet.be

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