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Usability principles

This topic page includes introductory information, a list of readings, and questions to guide your
reading and prepare you for class discussion; it may also include an individual or group
assignment, which may or may not be graded.

Usability refers to whether readers can use a print or an online document to easily fulfill their
goals or accomplish tasks (usability testing, Alred, Brusaw and Oliu, 2015; ABO). This topic
sheet includes three readings. The first, from ABO, is a very brief description of usability testing.
The second, by Ginny Redish, discusses a historical interaction between usability and technical
communication, introducing some important methods and concepts. The third, a rather difficult
reading by Barbara Mirel, addresses her claim that usefulness has to be at the forefront of
usability, and that a structural approach to representing the users task environment is essential;
this third reading is focused on usability in the computer software environment, but it has
important implications in other fields as well.

Readings for this topic

Read the following entries in ABO.

usability testing

Read these two essays:
Redish, J. (2010). Technical Communication and Usability: Intertwined Strands and Mutual
Influences. Professional Communication, IEEE Transactions on, 53(3), 191201. (available in the Resources tab on T-Square)
Mirel, B. (2002). Advancing a vision of usability. In B. Mirel & R. Spilka (Eds.), Reshaping Technical
Communication: New Directions and Challenges for the 21st Century (pp. 165187).
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum (available in the Resources tab on T-Square). You may skip
the Looking ahead section, pp. 183-186.

Reading questions
While reading ABO, consider the following thoughts and questions:
What three main goals does ABO identify for usability testing?
ABO asserts that if page 15 of a tax form is unclear to test participants, it will likely be
confusing to most taxpayers. Name at least one important, unstated condition about the
testers that claim overlooks.

As you read Redish, consider the following thoughts and questions:
What does UX stand for?
Redish identifies what she calls the most critical lessons of usability (p. 193). What are
Redish identifies five components of the process-model framework of projects at the
Document Design Center (p. 193). What are they?
Redish identifies a technique described originally by Marshall Atlas: like a usability test
having the user go through the procedures in the document while using the product (p.
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Topic: Usability principles

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193. How does the usability expert turn this into analysis? To what kind of data does it give
Redish identifies at least six methods for gathering data for UX design and usability
analysis. Identify at least three of them.
Redish identifies four contributions technical communicators can often bring to usability
contexts (p. 195). What are they?
Redish distinguishes little usability from big usability, little information architecture from
big information architecture, and little plain language from big plain language (p. 196).
How does she distinguish them? Why do you think she thinks this is important?

As you read Mirels essay, consider these thoughts and questions:
On p. 167, Mirel sets out her goal for the chapter/essay. What is it?
What criteria did Gould and Lewis set on usability (p. 168)? Could you create a more
concise definition without losing any meaning?
What does Mirel mean by a pick list perspective in design (p. 168)?
Mirel says that teams fail to foreground usefulness because of solidly rooted, conventional
design practices (p. 170). She names three. What are they? Can you see why they would
interfere with a focus on usefulness?
On p. 171, Mirel describes a problemformal decomposition methodsan attempted
solution, and the reasons that solution fails. Can you summarize?
Mirel compares and contrasts structural and procedural frameworks for representing
tasks (starting at p. 175). Can you summarize the similarities and differences?
Note the definition of genre (from Berkenkotter and Huckin) at p. 177. How does it
compare to the other definitions of this term that you have seen?
On p. 179, Mirel contrasts the procedural model, one where readers interpret it as a
single act repeated many times, with the structural model, where there is a multiplicity of
interpretations. She gives an example where the procedural approach is appropriate.
Think of one from your own field where the structural approach would be appropriate.
On p. 180, Mirel mentions three computer-programming modelswaterfall, iterative, and
extreme. Check Wikipedia for a definition of the waterfall model. You can find a definition
of extreme programming at Wikipedia as well. Below is a graphic representation of the
iterative model. Thinking about the concerns that Mirel expressed earlier in this piece, can
you give an example of a situation where each of these models might be preferable to
achieve usefulness?

2015 Brian N. Larson

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Classroom activities for this topic


Assignments for this topic

Usability assessment report (group project).

Works cited
Alred, G. J., Brusaw, C. T., & Oliu, W. E. (2015). Handbook of Technical Writing (11th edition).
Boston: Bedford/St. Martins.

2015 Brian N. Larson

Topic: Usability principles

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