RE: Usability (was: A challenge to Andrew)

Subject: RE: Usability (was: A challenge to Andrew)
From: Dan Hall <Dan -at- cooper -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 28 Nov 2000 08:20:21 -0800

I just had to pipe up on this. Usability testing is not, IMHO, the best
measure of effective writing.

One of the things that we at Cooper argue against is an emphasis on
usability testing, and on quantitative data over qualitative data.
Thoughtful design, done before creation begins, is the only way to craft an
ideal solution - and that's where the craftsman (or as Tom prefers, the
"cowboy') comes in.

Certainly there is (limited) value in usability testing, and perhaps it
might even be argued that with specific, similar examples of Tech writing,
such data provides a valid method of comparing two works. If Andrew and Tom
both wrote a user manual for the Widgetcom 1500, using their differing
methodologies, we might use this type of testing to determine which was
"better" for a certain type of user.

However, usability testing can only show you if something is broken. It
never tells you how to fix the problem and it never tells you how to avoid a
problem in the first place.

Most importantly, usability testing skews results toward beginners. The
users in the tests are new to the product, so features that help new users
are the ones that test favorably with them. These tend to be features
weighted heavily on the "pedantic" side, that aim at teaching or helping new
users. But features that new users prize (wizards, menus, etc.) are the very
features that hamper intermediate users.

Example: Word 2000 has a wonderful feature for new users: "Smart menus" that
hide features that aren't used frequently. For new users, this hides some of
the complexity of the product, and is fairly helpful. This almost certainly
is what MS discovered during their testing of the product - new users found
commands 18% faster with smart menus, or some such nonsense. But
intermediate users become frustrated when features they need are buried.
Advanced users generally don't use menus (they use keyboard shortcuts, and
more advanced features that are unfortunately located in disconnected dialog
boxes) What percentage of Word users are beginners, and how long do users
stay at that level? MS Word 2000 is aimed at a portion of the user
population that is a tiny fraction of the whole, and contains features that
inevitably frustrate the majority.

All these are generalizations, of course, and YMMV. But the best product
design (and I would argue, the best writing) is aimed at what Cooper calls
"perpetual intermediates" - users who have familiarity with the product, and
who are not best served by "novice level" material.

dan -at- cooper -dot- com

The opinions in this e-mail are solely mine, and do not necessarily reflect
of Cooper Interaction Design.

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