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Siblings or Step Siblings? Common Connections Between Technical Communication and Usability/User Experience

Siblings or Step Siblings? Common Connections Between Technical Communication and Usability/User Experience



The most recent version of a presentation to a technical communication audience describing the increasing connections and merging of the technical communication and UX/Usability professions.

The most recent version of a presentation to a technical communication audience describing the increasing connections and merging of the technical communication and UX/Usability professions.



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  • Copyright 2008, Christopher S. LaRoche Copyright 2008, Christopher S. LaRoche
  • Copyright 2008, Christopher S. LaRoche Copyright 2008, Christopher S. LaRoche
  • 09/22/12 DRAFT
  • User-Centered Design (UCD) – Key Attributes Ease of learning and re-learning Ease of use – efficiency Consistency within and between products First impressions Error prevention and recovery Memorability Satisfaction or likeability Flexibility and accessibility
  • Issue of how once you know something, your mind assumes that is ‘common’ knowledge and everyone knows that ….
  • Gen Y – Google is there reference,
  • SPECIALIZATION Medical, bio, pharma – those are areas of growth. The ‘general’ tech writer for a high tech software company is lessening. Copyright 2008, Christopher S. LaRoche
  • Copyright 2008, Christopher S. LaRoche
  • Copyright 2008, Christopher S. LaRoche
  • Copyright 2008, Christopher S. LaRoche
  • Copyright 2008, Christopher S. LaRoche
  • Copyright 2008, Christopher S. LaRoche
  • Copyright 2008, Christopher S. LaRoche
  • Copyright 2008, Christopher S. LaRoche
  • Copyright 2008, Christopher S. LaRoche
  • Copyright 2008, Christopher S. LaRoche
  • Copyright 2008, Christopher S. LaRoche
  • Copyright 2008, Christopher S. LaRoche

Siblings or Step Siblings? Common Connections Between Technical Communication and Usability/User Experience Siblings or Step Siblings? Common Connections Between Technical Communication and Usability/User Experience Presentation Transcript

  • Siblings or Step Siblings?Common Connections Between Technical Communication and Usability/User Experience Christopher S. LaRoche, Senior Lecturer MS in Technical Communication Program College of Professional Studies (CPS) Northeastern University May 18, 2011 Copyright © 2008 - 2011 - Christopher S. LaRoche
  • Welcome• CSL Background• Evolution of this lecture - Given many lectures/presentations on this topic - Over the last decade usability has evolved as a crucial component of products and product development - Saw many overlapping connections/history between the goals and needs of the two groups - Usability = ‘differentiator’ - Technical Communications = ‘needed evil’ - Companies recently putting groups together… or
  • Discussion Outline• My definition and overview of usability and UCD• Practical examples of usability• Historical connections and ties between the two fields• Collaboration & merging of the goals of both fields• How this collaboration influences our work• Personal reflection and thoughts on industry trends
  • Usability Overview• Concept of usability has been around for generations – when a “user” needed to complete a task in the most efficient and stress free manner available in a way that a particular user would understand.• History Wheel > WWII Instrument Panels > Telephones > Computer industry (Software/Hardware/Web)
  • Usability Overview• “Modern usability has its roots in World War II era- psychology. Initial military interest in the psychology of human/machine interaction stemmed from the desire for more effective use of military devices, such as aircraft, heavy artillery, and other high-cost, mission critical items.” [Pearrow, 4] http://www.rcgroups.com/forums/attachment.php?attachmentid=3007164
  • Usability Overview• During the late 20th century, the evolution of the telephone from heavy instrument to lightweight intuitive machine. This was really the start of the concept of usability tied to consumer products. http://www.telephoneteca.com/images/AU-10100_1.jpg
  • Usability Overview• The last few years have seen the growth of the “user experience” as an important differentiator in both products and Web sites.• A products “user experience” has to be both unique and satisfying or you risk losing that customer to competition.• Users will not put up with poorly-designed Web sites like they do with poorly-design software: they have choices and go elsewhere if the “experience” is not satisfying!• “Geek Machismo” – technological difficulty is no longer celebrated so much!
  • Ideal Development Timeline Requirements Gathering QA, Doc, Overall Product Development Cycles Beta & Training & Specification Creation Project EndProject Start Development User Early/Lo-Fi Prototyping, Reviews Research Traditional Usability Prototypes Design, & UI (Expert & Testing & Evaluation Design Heuristic) Ideal Usability Timeline These methods can be used at different points in the development process, but this is the most traditional (and efficient) time to use this framework.
  • How and Why Things End Up Not Usable• Knowing user is ignored – developers focus on and are rewarded on technical implementation or product features.• Often people making the decisions (such as product managers) about the product/Web site design have no experience with design or usability. Often rely on their own intuition or the latest ‘hot’ technology as references.• Incorrect assumption that usability is all common sense.
  • User-Centered Design (UCD)• “User-centered design (UCD), then, is both a technique and a philosophy that puts the user’s needs ahead of anything else. It is characterized by early and frequent interaction with the real user community to solicit feedback and to gain foresight into the future of a design.” [Pearrow, 61]• Both Usability and Technical Communication groups really have UCD goals – each wants to make the product as easy to use as possible for the end-user.
  • User-Centered Design (UCD) Wurman’s Golden Rule• “The only way to communicate is to understand what it’s like not to understand. It is at that moment you can make something understandable.” (Knemeyer, Wurman Interview in informationdesign.org)
  • User-Centered Design (UCD) – What UCD is Not• Users are not designers and designers are not users! http://simpsons.wikia.com/wiki/The_Homer http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oh_Brother,_Where_Art_Thou%3F
  • Additional Challenges• The amount of information available, particularly via the Web, increases exponentially yearly. Need information architecture principles adhered to to make usable.• The human brain can only process so much information and we are rapidly approaching ‘capacity.’• An increased need is to make products do much of the ‘mental load’ of information processing instead of the user.• Demand well-designed products with solid navigation and labeling information is crucial.
  • Practical Examples of Usability• Perform various tests/reviews of specific documentation, such as an installation guide, to see if it is written according to how a user will actually install a product and if the content is correct. This is one of the best first examples to study/analyze and see how people use the documentation.• Create a series of mock ups/prototypes of how the user interface could be redesigned to best support user’s needs.• Surveys of customers are the most time and cost efficient methods to understand needs and issues with users.
  • Historical Connections and Ties• In many ways the usability community/groups are where technical communication groups were two decades ago. No obvious ‘home’ in the company’s organizational structure.• Been a real ‘growth spurt’ in usability awareness. However, usability groups are still immature in the following ways: – Where does a usability group fit in an organizational structure? – What to call a usability group? “Alphabet soup’• This is more settled in technical communication groups today.
  • Increasing Collaboration/Merging of Fields• Many writers have intersections with usability.• The better the product is designed from the beginning, the less documentation is required, and so easier job it is for the writer and also for the user – satisfaction all around!• This is becoming more common for consumer products especially, but is an industry-wide issue.• Professionally, the usability profession includes many technical communicators who migrate from writing. Many of the skills are transferrable and are a good complement to the skills of a usability professional.
  • Historical Connections and Ties• The connection with User-Centered Design (UCD) and the focus on the user is the most obvious connection. – Traditionally, technical communication tends to be involved towards the end of the development cycle when the user interface is somewhat stable. Often involved earlier, but the end of development cycle is where we are primarily – the ‘crunch time.’ – Depending on the type of usability methods performed, it could be a various times in the development cycle (in the start at the design phase, throughout the cycle for testing, etc.) – Quite often, you can obtain valuable user feedback from usability tests that you can incorporate into documentation – or take out information that is not used based on solid numerical feedback.
  • Increasing Collaboration/Merging of Fields• The last decade has seen a real movement towards the consolidation of ‘common communication functions.’• Technical communication, training, and usability/user experience are often together as one organization.• Although part of this consolidation is due to cost savings (less writers), some of the unknown or unintended benefits include that with this closer working relationship, we can often uncover more issues that directly affect users when resources are ‘pooled.’
  • Increasing Collaboration/Merging of Fields• Usability/Documentation teams often are tied together by a common interest in creating a usable interface – both better for the user and requires less documentation.• The merging of documentation/training/UX folks is happening more in more non-traditional companies that tend to be more collaborative and less traditionally ‘siloed.’• Many ‘Gen Y’ engineers/developers (roughly under 30) see usability as one of the components and think about usability in general. Try to position yourself so that you can grow in this type of environment. This is one of the future waves.
  • Increasing Collaboration/Merging of Fields• Technical communication can often use valuable information that usability teams often have, including: – Contact information to interview and talk with real users – Feedback that users have given previously about the product, their ‘pain points’ and often feedback about the documentation itself – Vast array of usability reports and reviews of the product that can focus what areas need more/less documentation• Often technical communication can help the usability team with understanding the technical angle of the software and discuss in detail where issues exist within the product.
  • Increasing Collaboration/Merging of Fields• Although the change and connections have been occurring for a long time…• The last few years especially has seen the constriction and partial collapse of the field of technical communication within the traditional hardware/software fields. – This was happening as a trend the last decade… (technology expectations, generational differences, cost, etc.) – The economic collapse of 2008 exacerbated this trend – Since then, the field has continued to constrict and change
  • Increasing Collaboration/Merging of Fields• Realistically, the field is not going to ‘come back’ in the way that is has after previous recessions, as this is a fundamental shift in the profession.
  • WARNING!• The idea and ability to land a decent technical writing job in a hardware/software company with a few years of experience producing volumes of chapters/books, knowing Frame and RoboHELP -- and be able to make about $85,000.00 is no realistic, and in fact I think it will be … DEAD SOON GONE
  • What Happened to Tech Comm?
  • What Happened to Tech Comm?
  • How This Influences Our Work• Working with a usability group directly often helps influence the creation of a more usable product overall. This also helps allow for more streamlined documentation.• With a more standardized and consistent interface the technical writer can focus more on the important issues and not have to ‘write around’ complicated and cryptic software.• Taken to the extreme, a totally usable product would not require any documentation, but realistically that will not happen with complex products. However, having software that is designed with usability folks and not engineers will result in better products that are easier to document.
  • How This Influences Our Work• Although it could be considered a threat, this is also a great opportunity in that we can learn something additional, add to our portfolio of skills, and might just help one stay employed in a tough economy – knowing basics of usability is a differentiator when getting hired.• Documentation is becoming more streamlined, targeted, and minimal when it is still created.  Videos  Embedded Software  Posters/One-pagers
  • How This Influences Our WorkThe era of ‘just in case documentation’ is DEADThe era of ‘just enough documentation’ REIGNS
  • Personal Reflections• The role of technical communicator as valued in many companies, but I also see that role being VERY DIFFERENT over the next few years.• Writers will likely narrow focus to become more specialized.• Writers will have to be more adept at more tools/software, particularly for working with consumer products/tools (audio, video, graphical tools, etc.)• SIMPLY– there are and will be fewer jobs for technical communicators without specific skills/specializations the next decade.
  • Personal Reflections• Since user interfaces have generally improved and most of our users have a basic understanding of the Windows and browser interface, often less ‘generic’ documentation about user interfaces is now required.• There is an expectation that more product and services are usable – and documentation must be as well – even in complex products.• As a writer, knowing usability basics and understanding its role in a development process is important. understanding and talking about this as a technical communicator will often help position you better when job hunting.
  • Personal Reflections• Having a solid background in technical writing and a strong interest in usability has proved quite helpful to me to obtain my last two writing positions – as the value of usability is better understood now.• Both sides are learning to understand the needs/limitations of the other groups.
  • Trends in the ProfessionThe Profession is Becoming More Focused Although hiring will happen, it will likely be slower, but will tend to move into more specialized areas. There will be less of a need for a ‘general’ writer and more interest in writers who are specialized in certain areas or have specific knowledge of a particular products. For example, structured documentation is becoming the norm – and jobs are in biomedical/pharma, regulatory, etc.
  • Trends in the ProfessionUsability Presence is Ascending and Will Continue Usability groups have expanded quickly the last few years and will likely continue – even as the economy is tight. The job market for UX and usability is quite strong. This is one of the few areas of growth in the IT field. Partly usability is now a differentiation within products and there has been a realization within management circles that this is now important and a ‘hot topic.’ Example – The Boston UPA Chapter conference (May 25th) = 550!
  • Trends in the ProfessionTechnical Writing as a “Commodity” In some ways, technical documentation is viewed as a commodity. Especially on simple products, editorial processes, or even documentation that only requires maintenance updates. Realistically, anything viewed as a commodity can easily be done somewhere else cheaper. With documentation satisfaction even at its best not really high, many companies will take a lower satisfaction rate to save even more money. This can be stressful, but also many opportunities arise in this type of situation flexibility and adaptability is key here!
  • Trends in the ProfessionHigher Demands of Documentation’s Usefulness Expect more and continually higher demands for more usable and streamlined documentation. Not only will all content be online, but ‘less is more’ – more quick start guides, installations that are simple and are similar to generally understood installation concepts/best practices. Less volume(s) of documentation will be delivered, but in much more succinct and expanding format types. Writers also will be required to be much more proactive in both their career and within project teams to show value of their work and themselves.
  • Trends in the ProfessionThe Printed Book is Now Gone Look for more unorthodox or newer forms of information delivery – often created in conjunction with the usability team. Creating videos and tooltips (embedded documentation) and ‘quick bites of information’ will predominate and information distributed through small devices (iPods/iPads/Tablets) will be much more common. Not only is this cheaper, but this will reflect the needs/demands of the latest generation which will start to predominate within the next decade.
  • Ok, What the Hell Do I Do as a Writer?• If you have a decent job as a writer and enjoy it – STAY!• If you are unsure or out of work, network like crazy (professional groups), consider focusing on a specialization of biomedical, pharma, regulatory writing, etc.• Consider the usability field – as it is a ‘natural fit’ for many writers and is a field with a promising job market the next few years. You can do this on your own, and there are several solid programs in the greater Boston area to learn more
  • Conclusion• Technical Communication in general is constricting and refocusing on specific narrow fields.• The trend of increasing cross functionality between technical communication and usability is happening and will continue to increase the next few years.• Understanding the need for a usable product – and usable documentation – is not only good for the user, but also a good ethos for learning and for your own job prospects.• Having an understanding, knowledge, and interest in usability will help differentiate you and might help with job survival and hiring.
  • Conclusion• Questions?• Thanks and good luck• Please feel free to send me email with any questions about the profession or the lecture today: c.laroche@neu.edu
  • General Links• MS in Technical Communication (Northeastern) http://www.cps.neu.edu/techcom• User Experience (UX) Certificate (Bentley) http://www.bentley.edu/ux-certificate/index.cfm• MS in Human Factors (Bentley) http://www.bentley.edu/graduate/ms/mshfid.cfm• Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) http://www.upassoc.com/• Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) – Boston Chapter http://www.upaboston.org/• Boston CHI http://www.upaboston.org/
  • BibliographyCoe, Marlena. (1996). Human Factors for Technical Communicators. New York, NewYork: Wiley & Sons.Knemeyer, Dirk. (2004). “Richard Saul Wurman: The InfoDesign Interview.”http://www.informationdesign.org, January 2004. Retrieved August 20, 2008 fromhttp://www.informationdesign.org/special/wurman_interview.htmMorville, Peter & Louis Rosenfeld. (2006). Information Architecture for the WorldWide Web – Third Edition. Sebastopol, California: O’Reilly Media, Inc.Nielsen, Jakob. (1993) Usability Engineering. San Francisco, California: MorganKaufmann.Norman, Donald. (1988) Design of Everyday Things. New York, New York:Doubleday.Pearrow, Mark. (2007). Web Usability Handbook, Second Edition. Boston,Massachusetts: Charles River Media.