Usability readings

I’ve written a fair amount on usability and expect to write quite a bit more. And I’ve taught with Paul Anderson’s Technical Communication, which places usability and persuasiveness as the most critical concepts for writing. So this week’s reading and work with usability in 480 is a pleasure: familiar but still challenging territory.

I like Whitney Quesenbery’s Looking Beyond “Ease of Use” because it returns us to the complex and interconnected definitions of usability which were at the heart of early uses. As I argue in “Extreme Usability and Technical Communication”, the shift away from these definitions has been very negative for usability and user-centered design as a whole, and we really need a definition of usability which takes the arenas Quesenbery names into account. Interestingly, four of her five concepts map closely onto Jakob Nielsen’s, from 1993; here are Quesenbery’s and then Nielsen’s (“memorability” is his fifth).

  • Effective
  • Efficient (efficency of use)
  • Engaging (subjective satisfaction)
  • Error tolerant (few and noncatastrophic errors)
  • Easy to learn (learnability)

Of course, you can’t talk about usability without talking about Nielsen. I’ve taken issue with Nielsen repeatedly, and this week is no different—though I’m not opposed to his “empiricism vs ideology” argument. I just think that empirical work is overrated, since as he observes:

If designers and project managers don’t believe in the usability ideology, why would they implement usability’s empirical findings? After all, if you don’t want to make things easy, knowing how to make them easy is irrelevant.

(Note that Nielsen reduces usability to ease here.) If anything, the situation is worse than Nielsen represents it here, and usability (and user-centered design) flies under the radar way more often than it should. So I don’t mind falling on the side of advocacy (which is really what Nielsen is talking about, not ideology) whenever I deal with usability. Also, because I want to argue for a certain definition of usability which is closer to the original concepts Nielsen, Dumas & Redish, and others have pushed for, I think the balance should be tipped in favor of active argument.

This entry was posted in 480, Research. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Usability readings

  1. Virginia Agnew says:

    Error-tolerant? Yes . . . I read the Quisenbery piece and liked the examples regarding financial software –especially applicable when the user is the everyday person on the street. What about writing for specific audiences –high-context audiences?

    As a writer, even a small error is difficult in documentation. You have to write what the user will see, which may not be correct. Also, tech writers do not document bugs! But we lack the power to squash them. Alas!

  2. cbd says:

    You just shape the parts for your needs, like in the example. I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “high context,” but say you’re working on internal documentation which is used by folks familiar with a certain system. Then you could lower the importance of ease of use, and raise that of efficiency and effectiveness, and perhaps error tolerance depending on the specific application.

    This takes a bit more work, but it’s much more worth it, IMO.

  3. Pingback: cbd » Blog Archive » Defining accessibility

Comments are closed.