Tech writers doing UI design

Subject: Tech writers doing UI design
From: Bruce Byfield <bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com>
To: techwr-l digest recipients <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 11 May 2000 10:42:02 -0700

Darren Barefoot <dbarefoot -at- mpsbc -dot- com> wrote:

>The hope is that by becoming involved at the front end I
>can encourage more user-friendly interfaces and get a leg up on the whole
>documentation process. It seems a natural connection, and, as I understand
>it, a fairly common one among tech writers.

I think that tech-writers get involved with UI design because
they're often the first
non-coders to see the software. Also, UI design includes aspects
of editing and typography, both of which are skills that some
writers have. Finally, if the software includes a number of
screens, it's only when a procedure is documented or a flow-chart
is made that inconsistencies become obvious.

> Do you have any formal training in UI design? Any particular books you'd
recommend (I'm planning on reading "The Humane Interface" among

There are some good websites on the subject (I don't have them
presently bookmarked, or I'd give them to you).

One in particular is the Isys Information Architects site
( This site has a Hall of Shame and
Hall of Fame for design, which was more instructive for me than
anything else I've seen.

You'll never look at the Windows Start button the same way again

>* What percentage of your time is devoted to UI design?

At all the companies where I've done UI design, it's been a
secondary duty. Maybe 10-15? However, there have been two or
three week stretches when UI design was almost a full-time duty.

>* How do you participate? Are you in on the earliest design meetings?

At times. Twice, I initiated the design meetings because the
interfaces needed a major overhaul.

>* When developers have to design a new feature, do they approach you first,
>or create it and then approach you for changes or suggestions?

Both ways. A couple of times, when I've had to document complete
vapourware, the coders have taken my guesses and done it that
way. However, many coders don't like non-geeks involved. The
places where I've been encouraged to be involved with UI design
generally have very enlightened project leaders.

>* Any other advice?

I find it helps to think of UI design as a special form of
editing. Making the UI consistent is often the greatest need,
especially if the programming team is large and no interface
standards were defined at the strt of the project. A few other
basics, such as the fact that English is read from left to right,
and related objects should be grouped together will also take you
a long way.

An important point: always keep in mind what tasks are being done
with the interface. To give you an example, I once documented an
error correction module for a large pension and benefits system.
The programmers designed it so that most of the screen was
dominated by the list of entries with errors in them. The actual
errors were listed in the bottom one-tenth of the screen, and
users had to scroll through the entry table (which often ran to
thousands of entries) to find the cell that actually contained
the error. I pointed out that the obvious fact that the errors,
not the entries, were important in the module. I suggested a
redesign that gave the top half the screen to the errors,
including a description of the error and possible ways to correct
it, and adding the ability to jump from the error display to the
cell in the table of entries that contained the error.

Finally, remember to give your suggestions diplomatically. After
all, anyone resents outsiders. I always remind myself that the
coders have been mostly concerned with functionality and that,
even though I think they should be thinking about the interface,
there's no point blaming them because they don't.

Bruce Byfield, Outlaw Communications
"The Open Road" column, Maximum Linux
3015 Aries Place, Burnaby, BC V3J 7E8, Canada
bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com 604.421.7189

"I'll never get to heaven, no matter what I do,
I'll never be a blue-eyed boy, although my eyes are blue,
And I will not work, and I will not work, and I wll not work for
-Ian Telfer, "The Generals Are Born Again"

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