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A bit about usability testing (and a reminder about how it fits in with your Instructions Assignment)

by Steve Krause on October 14th, 2014

One of the requirements for the Instructions Assignment is you need to do some “simple usability testing.” Here’s the part of the assignment I’m talking about:

After you finish a first draft of your instructions, you will complete a simple usability test with a user outside of our class. This user can be anyone– a family member, a friend, a roommate, etc., etc.– who fits as closely as possible into the audience for this assignment. Note carefully what your user does with your instructions. You will want to use this experience both to revise your instructions and to write about the experience in your final project memo.

If you’ve taken other professional/technical writing classes in our program, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve been introduced to usability testing before. “True” and “professional” usability testing can be quite elaborate and even expensive, and it really is something that people who are in the business of making web pages (or lots of other things, too) do on a regular basis. But in a most fundamental way, usability testing is basically getting feedback from potential users of your materials– in this case, potential users of your instructions. As I say in the assignment, this can be anyone who is a) not in the class and b) who ideally doesn’t already know how to accomplish the task you’re trying to explain in your instructions.


Again, we could take a whole class on usability testing, so this experience is really just a “fly-by” of how to do this. The readings we discussed last week on writing instructions allude to usability already, but here’s another reading and a short video that demonstrates simple usability test.

Check out this video, “Rocket Surgery Made Easy by Steve Krug: Usability Demo:”

Those of you who have taken classes from me or Benninghoff where the topic of usability has surfaced have probably seen this 25 minute video. Again, this is more elaborate than what you need to do with your instructions, but I think Krug does an excellent job of demo-ing the kind of experience you will want to have in your usability study.

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  1. Natasha Wickenheiser permalink

    It’s important to remember that every single user/reader of your instructions will have his or her own unique experience with the text. Different things stand out to different people. For example, at around 14:16, when the woman was searching for zipcar’s promise for car availability, she couldn’t find any information for a while. I, on the other hand, was immediately drawn to the right-hand side where the page announced, “There are hundreds of Zipcars in Boston.” I probably would have tried clicking on that first to see if it provided more information, rather than searching my neighborhood. So when writing instructions, we need to write for all of our users, not just one. This highlights the importance of conducting multiple usability tests, since every user will succeed/struggle with different aspects of the instructions.

    • Steve Krause permalink

      I would say “yes and no” to this. What I mean is there are always going to be unique differences between users, but there are also patterns to look for in usability testing. We’re not really doing this for our purposes here, but normally, you would do even the kind of informal usability testing that Krug is describing here with several different subjects. So if four out of five people commented on the zipcar’s availability, then that’s probably something to address.

      This really isn’t a whole lot different than what happens with the kinds of peer review activities we’ve been doing this term. If you’ve got three readers and all of them say something along the lines of “your third paragraph is too long,” then there’s a pretty good chance that your third paragraph is too long.

  2. Kristen Smith permalink

    This video was an interesting watch and has me looking forward to doing my own usability tests and seeing how the people react to my instructions. I agree with Natasha on the point that different people will interpret instructions differently, especially in a situation like this. I found myself getting slightly frustrated at times during the video, feeling like the user was doing things in a different manner than I would have. I found this to be interesting and a point to consider when doing my own instructions since different people may have different ways of navigating my instructions. Overall, I think usability tests are not just important, but also very interesting and should hold high consideration when creating instructions.

  3. Latasha Davis permalink

    The Rocky Surgery Made Easy was a great Demo usability Test. It was a great visual and audio test that show a lot of positive and negatives to the website. Though the usability test Krug was able to see the things that lacked on the website such as the cars availability, difference in cost from daily to valued plan, and the differences in rates given from the actual rates once requested. I think that overall this gave the person that instructed this website ways to improve it. The demonstrator suggested that the website maker should add a calculator for the use of connivence. I think that this is a great idea. The website needs to be user friendly so I think that this suggestion would be great. I think that this test was very helpful in trying to improve the use of this website for overall target audience, had shown great visuals but can improve with a extended description of what certain things mean,and has organized the content but could fix a few things though the eyes of the demo user.

  4. Steve Krause permalink

    One reminder about this too: for our purposes in this class, this is really just to give you an idea about what your own usability test might kind of look like. So for example, you will want to have your user/test subject do kind of a “talk aloud” process where she tells you what she’s doing while she’s doing it and why. You’ll want to take some notes both so you can make changes as needed to your instructions and also so you can report back about that experience in your writer’s memo for this project.

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