Usability Tests in the Field

by Melissa Goodwin

Know your audience. Technical communicators must strive to engrave that message in their minds. As a result, technical communicators turn to usability testing to learn more about their readers and to improve their methods of communication.

Technical communicators write manuals, instructions, and warnings for computer software and hardware. They also write about products such as hand tools, medical equipment, lawn mowers, tractors, and pesticide sprayers. Most manuals, instructions, and product guides can benefit from usability testing. Replicating systematic procedures in these tests helps to assure clear, concise, and precise writing.

When technical communicators perform usability tests, three major considerations emerge: safety, realism, and logistics.

Safety: Technical communicators focus on possible consequences that users might encounter as a result of following the test instructions. Procedures to safeguard the user may need inclusion in the manual, and usability testing helps to discover flaws and weaknesses in the instructions.

Realism: Technical communicators must make certain that tests mimic real-life situations. Scenarios must reflect the actual setting, equipment, conditions, and back-ground in which instructions will be used.

Logistics: Ideally, usability tests take place in the same circumstances and in the same setting where the actual event occurs. However, conducting usability testing in mock settings requires easily moved equipment or products. Testers must then strive to replicate conditions as near as possible to actual surroundings and situations to ensure reliable results.

With these three considerations in place, technical communicators really discover their audience, the hallmark of their jobs, and they fulfill their customers' needs.



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