Testing index usability?

Subject: Testing index usability?
From: "Geoff Hart (by way of \"Eric J. Ray\" <ejray -at- raycomm -dot- com>)" <ght -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
Date: Wed, 16 Sep 1998 10:37:24 -0600

Brenda Ruetschi wondered <<If we want to test the words that a user
will be using to look up a topic in an index, for example assign,
associate, relate, link, how do we word the question in the usability
test?>>

That's not a trivial question by any means because you have to word
the question in such a way that you don't cue the test participant as
to what words to look for and what words to avoid; that would bias
your test and invalidate the results to a greater or lesser extent.
Here's how that might happen:

Tester A: "OK, you want to use the index to ***PRINT*** your
document. Understand? ***PRINT*** the document. Not 'output', not
'get a hard copy', but ***PRINT***!!!"

Tester B: "See that weird thing over there with the Hewlett Packard
Laserjet logo on it and the stack of paper protruding from the paper
tray? I want you to try to make it work."

OK, silly examples, but they illustrate the two extremes quite
nicely. What's the solution? Persuade the user to define the words
that will be used for the search. Here's one way:

Tester: "OK, so now you have your letter typed up and saved to hard
disk. What can you do with it now?"

Participant: "Hmmm... I can e-mail it, edit it, or print out a copy
on the printer over there."

Tester: "OK, let's see if you can figure out how to print the letter
by using the index to find the appropriate part of the manual."

The advantage of this approach is that it also (over the course of a
few participants) lets you build up a list of the user's preferred
terms for the process. In my example, you might get "print",
"output", and perhaps even "copy", and this would tell you that you
need each of these words in the index. You may already have them, in
which case you're well on your way to a usable index; if the words
are missing, add them.
--Geoff Hart @8^{)}
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

When an idea is wanting, a word can always be found to take its place.--Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


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