Adapting content for usability expectations at stc17

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2017, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. These are my notes from one of the sessions at the conference. All credit goes to the presenter, and any mistakes are mine.

Kirk St.Amant presented a session titled “Prototypes of Use: Adapting Content to the Usability Expectations of Different Contexts”.

Kirk has recently been working on “the auto manual phenomenon”. Think about opening up an auto manual and using the instructions on how to change a tire. Auto companies get plenty of complaints from customers about these particular instructions. At first the auto companies were puzzled, because user testing had showed the instructions were correct and easy to follow. After further investigation, it turned out that people couldn’t use the instructions, packaged as they were in a 450-page manual. Such a large book isn’t designed to be ready on a highway, in the dark, in the pouring rain. It doesn’t lie flat.

In other words, it’s a question of context. Where do readers actually use the doc? We need to focus on the delivery mechanism.

Consider how people use and process information. We associate a particular verbal representation with a physical object. Taking this further: The prototype that we use when we identify something may cause us to deliver the wrong product.

Kirk asked us to play a game, based on Physics or Maths textbooks. He asked us to describe such a book. The audience was unanimous about how such a book would look: Big, hardcover, blue or grey, with atoms drawn on the cover. We concluded that if we saw a thin pamphlet, we wouldn’t identify it as a Physics textbook. Similarly, we described the concept of a classroom.

When someone asks you to create a manual, you’re predisposed to create something that looks like a textbook, and probably something that fits into a classroom.

Instead, we should think: I need to create something that shares information on a particular setting.

We tend to use this formula when thinking of usability:

Content+audience = design

Instead, we should focus on:

Content+context[audience+setting] = design

Kirk now did a deep dive into defining the context of use, using a series of formulae and process maps to define the concepts and flows, illustrated by real-world examples.

Some cool terms:

  • a prototype jam – what you experience when you get stuck because some part of a familiar workflow is suddenly absent.
  • context mapping – a process for describing the objective, setting, and sequence of actions, for various contexts (objects, individuals, access points, exit options).

In response to a question about applying the results of a usability study: Kirk described how his team adapted the instructions for measuring blood pressure, based on the patients’ experiences using a blood pressure cuff and attempting to read a heavy manual simultaneously in order to report the results. Instead, the team substituted a voice-activated mechanism for reporting results.

The idea is to get engineers/designers to think about context at the start of the design process, so that content conforms to context.

Thanks Kirk for an educational, authoritative look at modelling usability and context.

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About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 10 May 2017, in STC, technical writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Jeff Coatsworth

    Hi Sarah – shouldn’t this post be titled “Adapting content for usability expectations at stc17”?

    • Hallo Jeff
      Yes! Thanks for pointing that out. I’ve fixed it in the title, but I’ll have to leave the URL as it is otherwise various links will break.
      Cheers
      Sarah

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