JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

In 1991, I was among the first members of the Usability Professionals Association (UPA). At that time, many technical communicators believed that user-centered design provided a way not only to make our publications more useful to consumers but also to improve the product interfaces so that they were not so difficult to explain. Many information developers sponsored usability testing in their organizations and became spokespersons for a focus on the users’ views. In 1997, Ginny Redish and I publishedUser and Task Analysis, which quickly became a major influence on the growing field of study of users and their everyday interaction with products and supporting information.

Many of the businesses that we work with recognized that understanding the User Experience was essential, not just an expensive add-on. They built User Experience teams, often headed by someone from technical publications who had taken a leading role. Corporate executives actually acknowledged, at least some of the time, that Apple has built its market position by recognizing that the users’ experiences are key to product and brand support.

Of course, information developers still struggle with the attitude that, by some miracle, they can create effective user assistance without ever talking to or meeting with or observing their customers. We hear from writers that they’re “not allowed” to talk with customers, although that is as often an excuse for not wanting to be bothered leaving a position of comfort and habit. Of course, when product development doesn’t interact with customers either, there may be gatekeepers at work, protecting the customers from people who might actually want to make their product-centric lives easier.

In his address to the 2012 UPA conference, Ronnie Battista, USPA Treasurer, notes that even though technology is changing faster than ever, people remain the same. We must focus on understanding people if we are to hope to meet their needs to learn, understand, and be successful. Because the need for understanding has become so crucial and so broad, the UPA is changing its name. Its new name is UXPA, the User Experience Professionals Association.

The new name fits the nature of the work. It is not just about usability but also about all aspects of the users’ experience in interacting with technology. The new name clearly links the work of the practitioners with the interests of the larger business. It makes business sense. Read Ronnie’s announcement here.

What might this change mean for information developers? Clearly, information supporting the successful use of a product is part of the user experience. If information is unclear, incomplete, or inappropriate, the user may have a very negative experience.

Consider your own experiences with information and the level of frustration that the wrong information presents. My husband and I have been building a small greenhouse from a kit. The instructions are primarily illustrations with very few words. At first, our experience was quite positive—good drawings, careful labeling of the parts, and step-by-step instructions through pictures alone. But about half way through, the information developers seemed to get tired. The illustrations began to be less helpful as the construction became more complex. We kept making mistakes and having to take pieces apart and start over. After several weeks, the greenhouse is not yet complete. Seems as if the instructions could have used some usability testing, especially at the difficult parts.

In many other cases, when we conduct quality assessments of customer information, one of the practices of our consultancy, we find incomplete instructions, steps out of order, steps hidden in paragraphs and topics that look like concepts, and content that simply fails to follow the users’ workflow. We always ask ourselves: “Has anyone ever tested these instructions?” In most cases, the answer seems to be “No.”

What compromises the users’ experience with the information and the product?

  • Poorly designed product interactions, especially the user interface that fails to match the users’ workflow or conceptualization of the tasks that the product should support
  • Product interface and information that has not been tested with real users performing actual work
  • Information that emphasizes interface manipulation (buttons and forms) and product features and functions rather than the solutions that the user is seeking or the scenarios that support standard use cases
  • Information that fails to explain how to correct common or even some uncommon problems
  • Information that is difficult or impossible to find, especially when topics are poorly labeled, content is strewn across multiple topics, links lead nowhere, and indexes and search mechanisms fail to pinpoint relevant information

If you think that these issues represent the tenants of minimalism, you are correct. Thinking your way through the four principles of minimalism means that you are thinking your way through the major components of the user experience. Let me state them in a way that is easy to understand:

  • Principle One—Users come to our products and information with work to do. They want to complete a task, fix a problem, learn a new capability, and focus on real work. That real work may include learning a concept and getting the facts straight, but the focus is on work rather than knowledge. Does your information help your users do real work without wading through unnecessary clutter?
  • Principle Two—Users have real goals in mind. They want realistic scenarios that match their goals. They want solutions to real problems. If they want to learn about a feature of your product, it is because they want to do something real with that feature, not learn about it for its own sake. If your information doesn’t present a real-life context for the users, it quickly becomes an unusable list with no links to the real world.
  • Principle Three—Users most often seek out information when they have a problem to solve. They get an error message, they fail to complete a task correctly, and the results they get are not what they expected. Does your information support them in understanding unexpected results, troubleshooting a problem, or responding to an error?
  • Principle Four—Users are busy. They want to find information quickly and easily. If they are using paper or digital paper, they want good tables of contents, indexes, and topic naming conventions that quickly help them locate the information they need. If they are using the Internet or other electronic means to access information, they want good faceted search mechanisms that help them narrow the information to one or two good topics that solve their problems. They certainly don’t want thousands of results, links that don’t work, or information that looks promising but turns out to be incomplete or inaccurate.

For information developers, minimalism is the heart of the user experience. It’s not about writing shorter sentences or using fewer words, although those goals are good as well. Minimalism is about knowing your users and understanding what they are trying to do.

If you want information development to be at the heart of the User Experience initiatives, as promoted by the User Experience Professionals Association, then focus on minimalism first. Information developers founded the Usability Professionals Association. With the name change, the organization is even more relevant to our work today.

Dr. JoAnn Hackos is the CIDM Director.