Usability through Fun?

Subject: Usability through Fun?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: John Posada <jposada01 -at- yahoo -dot- com>, TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 21 Jul 2006 09:39:48 -0400

John Posada wondered: <<We say over and over that our writing should not use humor as it can be misinterpreted and takes the chance of being offensive to those who might not see the humor.>>

That's true, but only in a limited sense. "Misinterpretation" is a potential problem with any writing, not just humor, and the solution is not to avoid humor but to clearly identify it, and to ensure that the real instructions (if any) are crystal clear.

The missing word that should be added to make your statement comprehensive is "inappropriate". In this sense, "appropriate" humor means that the context must support the use of humor. Stressed out users in hand-to-hand combat with balky software under an obscene deadline (techwhirlers, for instance) are not an appropriate context; people who want to play "Doom" over the network are.

A second use of "inappropriate" means humor that some might consider offensive or annoying. That's a much more subjective call, and I'm not aware of any broadly useful touchstone that will tell you when that might be the case. Closest I can come is that gentle humor based on irony or expressed at the expense of something inanimate and with no cultural significance (e.g., software rather than a crucifix) is often "safe", whereas humor based on someone else's pain or humiliation or stupidity or beliefs rarely is.

Cultural humor lies somewhere in between: there's a long tradition that jokes about your own religion or ethnic or other group are safe if presented only to that group, whereas jokes about someone else's group aren't, unless everyone in your group unaminously enjoys humor directed at the other group. (And then, the humor may be ethically questionable even if it's "safe".) Given that you can't always be certain who is listening, there's always the risk you'll offend someone. For example, I once sat in at a boring presentation at an conference, and mind wandering in a desperate attempt to stay awake, I invented an engineer joke... which I figured would be safe given the audience (techwhirlers).

So I lean over and whisper to the guy sitting beside me. "How many Exxon engineers does it take to change a lightbulb? 1000... 1 to change the lightbulb, and 999 to clean up the oil spill." Yes, this was right after the Exxon Valdez disaster. Yes, the speaker shot us a glare that should have vaporized us on the spot when the guy laughed out loud. And the second punchline? He showed me his ID badge, and he was an engineer working for Exxon. Fortunately he had a good sense of humor. <g>

<<The two points (among others) that caught my eye were: "Before, residents threw the water report away and never read it, but now they not only read it, they look forward to receiving it... and they keep it all year!" [second example snipped]>>

Context: people who are reading because they're interested, not because they're trying to accomplish a task while stressed.
Solution: humor is appropriate... but not just humor; anything that makes the material interesting to read is good.

<<Don't we want that?>>

Of course. But the context most of us work in won't permit it. When the software and other things we document are flexible, responsive to user needs, bug-free, and intelligently designed to support the task at hand, people will approach our documentation in the right state of mind to accept humor. That's not going to happen for a considerable time for most of us.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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Usability through Fun: From: John Posada

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