Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Usability from the trenches

Mark Liberman is a linguist and mathematician at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also has some responsibilities for student accommodation.
He has written a wonderful article about an example of poor usability for a new computer application which was supposed to let students report facilities problems - leaky pipes, blocked drains, or burnt-out light-bulbs - to the facilities management service.
In "When bad interaction happens to good people" on his Language Log blog, Liberman describes what was wrong with the new software and the innovative way in which he addressed the issue - he wrote an "underground guide" in the style of a guide to a computer game!
This story elegantly highlights what tech writers and usability consultants have been trying to say for years: make user tasks the focus of user interactions with systems. Don't make people struggle guess what the system wants them to do, instead create the system - or at least its UI - so that it anticipates what the users needs are.

Word at work

Last week I took part in two separate discussions on two different mailing lists on the same topic: the difficulties tech writers face when trying to implement Microsoft Word document templates across a department or organisation.

There are good reasons to try and do this. If everyone uses the same document templates, then there is a greater chance that you can get documents that are consistent both in terms of content areas addressed, and in terms of visual appearance.

Management often have unrealistic expectations of what a Word template might achieve: consistency, accuracy, minimum effort by subject experts, reduced need for specialist tech writers and editors and so on. They are surprised when this doesn't happen.

In my view the problem isn't technological but educational. Nearly everyone who uses Microsoft Word thinks that they are not only a great writer, but a great editor and a great typographer too. (In contrast, not many people think that because they use Microsoft Excel they're automatically a great accountant.) Tech writers frequently complain that however far they go in providing standard paragraph and character styles in Microsoft Word, document authors always seem to prefer direct formatting, just because it's there, and because they've never been taught anything different.

In my experience, people are happy to take some time to learn how to use the tools they have available. Even those alleged "prima donnas" of the hi-tech world, the people who write flawless code in their sleep, are grateful to be told about a few shortcuts to better Word documents. But unfortunately, few organisations are prepared to invest the time and resources in teaching everyone how to use the Office Suite tools they have available. And that's a huge hurdle to overcome.