Instructor Commentary: Usability

posted Oct 12, 2010 3:35 PM by J. Tirrell   [ updated Oct 17, 2010 4:34 PM ]

At its heart, usability is such a commonsense notion that it is amazing how long it took to break into the corporate mainstream. The basic concept of usability is that documents and products should be usable in the real world environments where they function. Ensuring this can be more difficult than it sounds, however, as we all know from bonehead products that defy our basic needs as users. Some things don't work the way they're intended, don't account for our needs, don't work the way we expect, or are simply more difficult than they need to be. This site contains a large collection of problem products. One favorite is the van seat that falls over when you try to slide it back. This is poor usability, because almost every car ever made with a mechanical seat mechanism uses a handle like this to slide the seat back and forth. The van's design defies that lifetime of experience.

Products like these, bad instructions, and difficult-to-navigate websites have inspired a greater focus on usability. There is a Usability Professionals' Association, and a World Usability Day held on the second Thursday in November (which oddly seems less usable than a consistent date). I hope you begin to observe this solemn holiday every year. Many companies now do extensive usability testing before releasing products. Microsoft is becoming much more interested in usability. They even have User Research Studios. Microsoft has even gone so far as to have employees live in people's homes for six months to see how they use products. Companies now realize that user-centered products are good for business.

As for usability in this class, many of you have commented that knowing and understanding an audience will be crucial to writing your instructions (as it is for writing any document). Obviously, we lack the time and resources to do extensive, professional usability testing; however, we will carry it out to the best of our abilities.

Usability Tests

An important decision you will have to make is how to conduct your test. You want to select or create a usability test that will give you the kind of feedback you need to assess your instructions properly. There are many types of usability tests, but some are more appropriate for this project than others. Technical Communication Today lists and describes various kinds of tests on page 323. Common tests used in the context of this assignment are:

  • A document markup, where users read your documentation as they perform the task and mark any places where they get confused.
  • A read and locate test, where readers are asked to find important information to see how long it takes (this is very effective for longer documents).
  • A summary test, where users are asked to summarize what they feel is important information from the document.
  • A survey, which asks users about their experiences as they read the document (this could also be use to assess how effectively the instructions convey key pieces of information).

Usability Questions

Whatever test you choose, focus on getting productive feedback. TCT lists four main questions to keep in mind as you conduct usability testing. All are relevant to the Instructions Project:

  • Can they find it? Users want to be able to find the specific information they need very quickly. They don't want to wade through pages of text to find the few relevant instructions. Make sure your document is easy to navigate.
  • Can they understand it? Instructions should be easy for the appropriate audience to understand. Pick someone who is not very familiar with the task you're covering, and have them perform it while reading the instructions. Find any places where they are confused or don't understand the terminology, directions, or graphics. Then follow up to find out what might be made more clear.
  • Can they do it? This one seems clear enough—can they perform the task at hand in the time expected? If not, something is probably wrong with the instructions. Find any places where your instructions break down, explain something vaguely, or diverge from reality.
  • Is it safe? Hopefully none of you will be writing instructions for using dynamite or alligator wrestling (or some combination of those two), but safety is still a concern. Make sure the user isn't doing anything that will cause injury or damage the product. This is a very real concern, because lawyers and judges (and often other entities such as OSHA) are tertiary and gatekeeper audiences for instruction sets.

Peer Testing

One obvious issue with our process of usability testing is that we only have ourselves as the testing pool. This can be a problem, for example, if the audience of one of your instruction sets is senior citizens or young children. The responses you get from your classmates may not closely reflect the experiences of the document's true audience. This is a major issue in the professional world, and it is why so much time, money, and energy is expended on focus group testing. Nevertheless, the important thing is to produce the best usability tests that you can, even if your classmates aren't the perfect audience for your instructions. I will be evaluating your usability tests as they pertain to your instruction sets' true audiences, contexts, and purposes.

Overall, I believe most people intuitively understand usability but lose sight of it when they start designing or writing—especially if the subject is one they know well. You can get so focused on the item or process that you lose sight of the fact that humans will be the ones interacting with your instructions. Usability testing will help ensure that you stay focused on the user and needs of the audience.

Instructor Commentary: Design

posted Sep 30, 2010 4:39 PM by J. Tirrell   [ updated Feb 2, 2011 1:36 PM ]

Design is much more crucial than many people realize. It is not merely something that dresses up information; design is how users interact with data. In professional and technical fields, we sometimes make the mistake of thinking that we can get something to work and then just make it pretty and useable later. This is a major conceptual flaw, and it is a significant reason why whether you love or hate Apple, you have to admit that they are financially successful and culturally significant. (Read this short article from for one take on this issue.) More than perhaps any other company its size, Apple has an understanding of the importance of interface and design, and how they are inextricable from function.

Bad design also has a pragmatic impact. Read this post from (including link) about the recent Tropicana juice package redesign. Then read this post from (including links) about how PepsiCo was forced to undo its product redesign because it stunk. Notice that the objections really don't have to do with how pretty the designs are; the comments have to do with how design actually facilitates or hinders access to the product. You might think this is minor, but PepsiCo is a giant company, and they just had to issue a major mea culpa and change the product design back because of consumer response. This is not a situation that you would want to be in as a designer.

The point here is often discounted, but it is absolutely correct and clearly has tangible business implications: design matters, because design is product interface. Our products are documents, and design is no less important in this context. A person could devote a lifetime to studying design, but there are some simple principles that can be grasped quickly and that make a huge difference in documents. Technical Communication Today provides five principles of design: balance, alignment, grouping, consistency, contrast. I use these to help me make judgments about design, and I will discuss other issues here.

Qualities of Good Design

First, good design is invisible. This means that good design allows readers to pick up a document and find the information they want effortlessly. When was the last time you picked up a newspaper and thought "Wow, this is really well designed!" It is more likely that because it was well designed, you picked it up and started reading the articles you wanted. Only when there are problems with the newspaper design—say, the alignment is off or its contrast is bad—would you notice the design.

This is not to say that your brain isn't responding to the design. Design is noticed by the brain, but it happens more quickly than we can realize and articulate. For example, this BBC News story reports that viewers make judgments about website design in about one 20th of a second. The frame established in this snap judgment, which is made before any kind of content transmission can occur, dictates the viewer's relationship to the document. Therefore, the second quality of design is that good design is persuasive. It persuades or dissuades readers from reading your document. It also lets them know how professional, credible, and competent the document is. Good design establishes the ethos of a document before any of the content has an opportunity to do so. Though people may not be aware of it, good design will make them trust you and your information more. Think how you can tell when an email is phony. It is almost always mechanical issues (spelling, strange title, awkward prose) that tip you off before you actually read the content (that is, if you haven't already identified the email as phony and moved on).

The third quality of design is that good design guides the eye. It helps direct readers' line of vision to follow the relevant tasks in the relevant order. It helps readers find the most important information effectively. It removes all visual clutter and helps readers focus in on what they need to know. We will analyze good and bad instructions to explore this. Bad directions confuse you so that you don't know where to look and how to proceed. Good directions, conversely, guide you from one step to the next.

In guiding the eye, it is not just the text, bullets, lines, and graphics that help, though these elements are important. White space also guides the eye. This is because of the fourth quality of good design: good design incorporates white space effectively. White space is not empty space to be filled with content, but part of the overall design. It is breathing room for the eye (kinda mixed metaphor there). It is the background that provides the contrast necessary for good design. This article on white space from A List Apart provides a useful discussion of how white space functions as a design element. So as you design, think about white spaces. Your readers will respond to them (consciously or not), so you are responsible for using them well.

Design is frustrating, because after you conceive and execute your design, you still have to go back over everything carefully to make sure that every little detail is worked out. Quality five is that good design requires careful attention. The grading standard for your instruction sets is that they could operate within the professional world. It's a high standard, but also necessary for success in current and future employment. Therefore, the difference between an A and a B project will often be the extra hour you spend printing out and revising your instructions to fine tune every detail.

Design Example

Let's look at an example of how design principles show up in documents. Say you were writing instructions about what to do if you encounter a bear:

This passage has some problems that may not jump out but that affect the design of the section. First, the design has a problem from a usability standpoint. Who, when facing a wild bear, is going to sift through this paragraph and grasp all these details? Panic will overwhelm cognition, so information needs to be perceived as quickly as possible. Second, why is "DO NOT RUN" halfway through the paragraph? That likely is the reader's first instinct, so it needs to be addressed immediately.

Third, the design has problems from a design principles standpoint, which end up affecting usability. There is an alignment problem—the line across the bottom does not sync with the bottom of the picture. Also, lack of consistent repetition is a problem. Some steps are capitalized and some are not. Contrast is also an issue, because the title of each step is smaller than the step's instructions. These issues may not necessarily matter to someone facing a wild bear, but which bear encounter manual will people trust: one that is professional and flawless or one that looks like it was slapped together in PowerPoint and reproduced on a photocopier? Seemingly small details establish an overall ethos. In a professional situation, this means the difference between success and failure.

A revision of this work might look like this:

This is not necessarily the ideal design, but you can see improvement, and you can probably identify other potential improvements as well, such as adding a more usable graphic, aligning the top of the picture with the title, and fixing the contradiction between Standing your ground, slowly backing away, and climbing a tree. More importantly, you are now able to articulate the improvements based on usability and design principles. Remember these design principles as you are putting your project together. Good design leads to improved usability and ethos, and will persuade users to read your document.

Using Graphics

Before closing, I want to say a few words about graphics in your instructions projects.

Screen Captures: When dealing with screen captures, use only the relevant part of the screen. Use a photo editing program to get rid of unnecessary elements. Following the principle of consistency, make all screen captures the same shape and the same dimensions unless there is a necessary reason to deviate. Don't make some images rectangular and some square, or some small squares and others large squares. This will confuse users and look ugly. (As you become more experienced, you will identify instances when it is the appropriate choice to violate consistency, but it's important to have a solid understanding of how consistency functions before you try to work against it.) Also, consider emphasizing important parts of screen captures; circle important elements, or use arrows to define and point out features. Finally, make sure your captures are aligned well in the overall document.

Photos: Digital photos are another great source of images. To get good photos, you should use a good digital camera, not a cell phone camera. Like screen captures, photos should be the same size, shape, and orientation throughout your document unless there is a specific reason to change these aspects. Consider lighting when taking pictures. You want pictures to be well lit, especially because users likely will need to see things in close detail. Also, keep your lighting consistent. Don't take some pictures of your truck outside and some in the garage, because the difference in lighting and background color will be noticeable and violate the principle of consistency. You can use a photo editing program like Photoshop or Fireworks to edit the coloring on your photos or to turn them into grayscale images to make the look consistent. Also, frame and crop pictures carefully. Get all unnecessary elements out of your picture. Picture quality is determined as much by what is excluded as by what is included. Finally, make sure your photos are aligned well in the overall document.

Good luck in producing your instructions. Feel free to contact me with questions.

Instructor Commentary: Instructions

posted Sep 28, 2010 1:55 PM by J. Tirrell   [ updated Nov 1, 2010 1:40 PM ]

The prevailing notion about instructions is that they are superfluous, and only for those who are unable to understand how to use a particular item or complete a certain process. Often, users won't read instructions at all. For example, Jim Gee argues in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy that successful video games teach people how to play as they are playing. After all, few people crack open their copy of Halo III or Shadow of the Colossus and read the instruction manual first thing (although I do). Most people pop the game into the console, and then later consult the manual if they have problems.

Instructions get a bad rap for a reason. Many of the stereotypes about them are accurate—they are often confusing and difficult to use. Instructions are frequently poor because they are systems-centered—that is, they are focused on the item or process and not the audience. Instructions that suit the audience's needs, values, and attitudes are going to be much more useful than those that don't. That is why we're doing usability testing in this project, so we can get an idea of how actual users will work with our documents.

Instructions often have one or more of these problems, all of which you should avoid in your projects:

Problem 1:

Instructions do not account for audience. As mentioned above, many instructions take no actual account of who will use them. Recently, my friend Ryan tried to change the oil in a 1986 Plymouth Reliant using instructions that asked him to locate the oil drain plug. Ryan doesn't know much about cars, and didn't automatically know what a drain plug looks like. Unfortunately, there was little in the manual to identify what the drain plug was, what it looked like, or where it was located. (Also, the instructions referred to the part as the oil drain plug, the drain plug, and the plug at different points, which is confusing. The document should have chosen one term and stuck with it to build up consistency.) Ryan ended up loosening many things underneath the car before he found the drain plug. He eventually accomplished the step, but it was time-consuming and exasperating, which of course established a negative frame for his relationship with the instructions for the rest of the process.

The difference between systems-centered and user-centered instructions may be identified in the varying reactions to this story. A systems-centered perspective would hear the story and say: "The process is described correctly, so Ryan must be flawed. He must not have the necessary skills to complete the task." Alternately, a user-centered perspective would state: "The process was much more difficult than it needed to be, so the instructions are flawed. They do not present the material as effectively as they might." That's the difference, and it's crucial. User-centered directions, which are the kind you will be creating, focus on the audience's interaction with the task rather than only the task itself.

To generate user-centered directions, you will want to consider several aspects of your audience groups:

  • What are audience expectations? Good directions know how an audience will approach the task. When you get a video game, you are excited to play, so the directions should be aware that this is a fun activity but that it may frustrate some users because, for example, game controllers can be exceedingly complex and contain numerous buttons. Directions also should be aware of genre. People who purchase Halo III or Shadow of the Colossus are a different audience than those that buy Wii Sports or Guitar Hero, and the instructions should suit the audience accordingly. (Indeed, how many of you reading this have no idea what I'm talking about here; just like Ryan, we're all novices at something.) Instructions for changing car oil should account for the fact that the audience is probably dreading the task, a little confused by it, and performing it while underneath an automobile. After all, people who have mastered changing their oil almost certainly are not going to require instructions. Nevertheless, one of the most important things to understand is that often instructions have mixed audiences, but no writing is ever "for anybody." The "general audience" is a myth. Make sure to analyze your audience, context, and purpose and produce a corresponding document.

  • What do audience members already know, and what do they need to know? It's safe to assume that people changing a car's oil already know a little about cars. They probably know that oil is important to the vehicle's function, and they probably know it should be changed periodically. It is likely that they have had their oil changed at a service station, and know about how long the process should take. They won't necessarily know that you need a new oil filter and oil wrench, how to pick out appropriate oil, where the oil drain plug is, how to dispose of the old oil, etc. They also need to know safety warnings about being careful under a car. They don't really need to know how oil works in relation to the overall car system, or how oil is made. So as you're writing instructions, think carefully: What do my audience members already know? What do they need to know? What doesn't matter to them? Many experts who are writing instructions know much more about the topic than the audience, but much of that information is not important for instructions because it's not necessary to the task. Much of the information experts take for granted is vitally important to the task and must be included. You will have to put yourself in the audience's shoes and determine what is necessary and what is not. This is harder than you might think. Chip and Dan Heath discuss something they call the "curse of knowledge" in their book Made to Stick. They state: "Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has 'cursed' us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can't readily re-create our listeners' state of mind" (20). Importantly, our audience isn't stupid or deficient because they aren't familiar with an item or process that we take for granted. For example, it would be improper for me to view students as flawed because they have not mastered something that I have yet to teach them. Similarly, you will have specialized knowledge that your audience members do not have, but they are not deficient because of this. Rather, it is your task to communicate your knowledge to this audience. In a very real way, if they fail in their task, it is as much your fault as it is theirs—just as if a student does poorly in this class, it is as much my fault as it is the student's.

Problem 2:

Instructions do not match real-world experience. Recently my friend Anna (who is married to Ryan) was trying to assemble a fabric dog crate. The crate comes flat in the package and has to be expanded by bending metal bars that snap together to create a frame for the crate. The instructions show that you simply grab the bars, pull them up, and snap them together, and presto, it's done. The problem is that this action looks effortless on the directions but requires a great deal of force in real life, so much so that Anna thought she was doing something wrong or that the crate was improperly manufactured. Eventually, she was able to get the bars together, but it was an unnecessary ordeal. The instructions should match as closely as possible the real world actions of the user. If they don't, users will get confused and angry. Usability testing is one of the best ways to ensure a close connection between instructions and actions.

Problem 3:

Instructions are unappealing and obfuscating. Many people don't read instructions because they're so visually unappealing or intimidating that they don't want to bother with them. These online instructions covering how to solve a Rubik's Cube are monstrous. They are almost impossible to read because of the background and text colors. They are not placed into any kind of ordered sequence—everything is just thrown together in a big mess. They include no diagrams, which are vital to solving the Rubik's Cube puzzle (unless you are Will Smith). In short, it is very unlikely that anyone will use these instructions. People would rather labor on without help than consult something that seems aggressively unapproachable.

So many instructions are this way. They are filled with text that is daunting to the eye. They are full of technical jargon that intimidates the reader. They are not broken up in a logical sequence that is easy to follow. They include no pictures or graphics to aid the reader. They are not cleanly designed in a way that guides the eye. I expect your instructions to be well designed. The ultimate test of good design in instructions is that users want to use them and find them easy to use. One of the better instruction sets I have seen is also one of the silliest: the safety warnings for a dryer featuring a cartoon sketch of a talking appliance telling readers not to let "birds or other critters nest in my vents!" This document is silly, but it catches the eye and promotes comprehension (I obviously still remember what it told me years later). I'm not advocating that all your instructions include cartoon talking appliances, but they should make users want to read them. They should make their information "sticky." If users don't want to read your instructions, they won't, and they will be useless.

To assist with your design process, you will analyze existing instructions sets to get a better sense of what works well and what does not. Also, you will read material about design principles. It's important to remember that design is choice. If you don't cater your format, font, document dimensions and length, etc. to your specific needs, you are letting defaults make your design decisions, which is not user-centered.

A few other quick notes on the project:

Multimedia Elements: Please don't be worried about incorporating multimedia elements if you feel that you don't have the aesthetic or technical ability to do so. You are all savvy with figures, diagrams, images, audio, etc. by virtue of being part of contemporary American culture. Don't be intimidated by working with communicative elements that are not written words. Also, be aware that you are under no obligation to use any particular piece of hardware or software in the production of your instruction sets. Don't be afraid to keep things low-tech if that is more comfortable for you. If you feel better assembling your work with scissors, scotch tape, and a Xerox machine, then by all means do that. The design principles we cover are not tied to particular technologies. (Nevertheless, you should choose your topic in part based upon how technically capable you believe you are to produce appropriate instructions.)

Safety Warnings: Safety warnings are an important part of instructions, so make sure that you include them where necessary. For some of you, it will be life or death information about being careful under a car. For others, it will be cautions about not damaging your computer as you install new software. Whatever the case, safety labels have a tendency to be mocked in mainstream discourse. This article from CNN is a great example of that attitude. Sometimes product warnings are indeed ridiculous and treat users like idiots, which violates the tenets of a user-centered approach. However, they are an important inclusion for user safety and for legal reasons. Most warnings exist because somewhere, somehow, somebody did the thing the warning says not to do. I remember people making fun of the warning label on a Batman costume that said "Warning: Cape does not allow wearer to fly." But somewhere, some kid jumped off his parent's roof wearing the cape (which is doubly flawed, because Batman doesn't fly—at best he glides). Warnings are important for legal reasons, and lawyers and judges are a tertiary audience of instruction sets (and sometimes your company's legal council is a gatekeeper audience). In your own work, make sure to find the right balance between necessary and superfluous information when dealing with safety concerns.

Second Person: Although this instructor blog uses second person (you) frequently, avoid it in your instructions. Instead of saying "You should open the drain valve," just write "Open the drain valve." This seems minor, but it really cleans up the prose and makes things more readable, which is an important goal.

Good luck with the project. Contact me with any questions.

Exam #1 Wednesday (9/29)

posted Sep 24, 2010 7:37 AM by J. Tirrell   [ updated Sep 28, 2010 8:18 AM ]

Exam #1 will take place on Wednesday (9/29). The exam will comprise multiple choice/short answer questions based upon terms and concepts covered in class readings. The class-generated review is available here. A few of the questions on the review will appear on the exam, but most will be created by me based on the readings. As such, to perform well on the exam, you should be familiar with all of the readings from the first project.

Traits of Effective Reading Responses

posted Jul 28, 2010 12:22 PM by J. Tirrell   [ updated Jan 11, 2011 7:09 PM ]

The following list articulates my expectations for Reading Responses. Keep in mind that Engagement Assignments (such as Reading Responses) constitute 20% of your total course grade. I've seen many students' grades lowered by a letter or more due to neglected Engagement Assignments.

  • Make certain to account for the complete prompt. If it asks you to include specific information or talk about a particular aspect of the reading, be sure to do that.

  • Provide mostly critical commentary in your Reading Response, not summary. We have all done the reading, so we don't need much summary. Instead, make concrete, specific connections to our previous readings and your own experience inside and outside of class. Then turn your discussion to how this information might be useful in our current project, or otherwise change how you thought about it.

  • Use grammar and structure that is appropriate for a professional context. Sentence-level grammar is important, in part because it gives the response an appropriate ethos. Also, your response should be structured into a complete narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. Don't just collect random thoughts into one large paragraph. As writers, we have to do the work of presenting our material to the reader comprehensibly.

  • Hit the Reading Response word count. Word counts are somewhat arbitrary, but they encourage the kind of sustained engagement necessary for a good post.

  • Post your Reading Response by the deadline. Reading Responses should be posted before class time on the day that they are due.

Welcome to ENG 204-001: Introduction to Professional Writing

posted Jul 21, 2010 12:07 PM by J. Tirrell   [ updated Aug 4, 2010 12:42 PM ]

Welcome to ENG 204-001: Introduction to Professional Writing with Dr. Jeremy Tirrell. I will put updates and news that you should know on this Announcements page. The course flows through this website. As such, you should take some time to familiarize yourself with it, particularly the Syllabus, Calendar, and Projects sections.

Again, welcome to the course! I hope you find it challenging and rewarding. If you have any questions, feel free to email me through

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Course Information

Intro. to Professional Writing
ENG 204-001
MO 204
MWF 10:00-10:50

Jeremy Tirrell
MO 150
MWF 2:00-4:00 (and by appointment)


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