Catering for novices and expert users 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.

Laurian Vega presented a session titled “Novices AND Experts, Not Novices OR Expert Users”. I’m very interested in this topic, as it’s a problem that most creators of documentation face: the people coming to your docs may be new to the topic, or seasoned users looking for help with one specific task/concept. How do you optimise the docs UX (user experience) for both types of audience? Laurian’s talk focused on user interfaces. I figure a doc set has its own user interface, and as tech writers we’re responsible for the information architecture of the doc set too.

Laurian is a UX engineer. Her team writes all the words for the user interface (UI) and documentation for around 30 products.

Experts and novice users

Should we have two difference pieces of software to support the two types of users? No, says Lauren.

She showed us Adobe Photoshop as an example of a tool made for experts: graphic designers. But a number of people who are not graphic designers need to use it, and it’s flabbergasting.

People move from being novices to experts. They do this for various reasons, including necessity and initial simplicity of the task. There’s a spectrum of people, from novice to expert. By designing for the extremes, we also cater for the people in the middle.

Novices do well if the UI is simple, and there’s a single, clear call to action. They benefit from tutorials.

Experts know the task they want to complete, and they know how to do it. (Remember, we’re talking about UI here, not the docs.)

Laurian showed the Google search page as a good example of a design that caters for both novices and experts. Note the large expanse of white space, which focuses the user on the main task. The search box is right in the middle, so the eye is drawn to it. There are only two buttons, and you don’t even need to use them. For the expert users, there are extra controls at top and bottom, which you can find if you’re looking for them.

Expert users tend to have extensive domain knowledge. They may not necessarily have knowledge of modern UI design, because they’ve been doing the same task for so long. Expert users tend to take less time to complete a task, and often perform multiple tasks.

If a user doesn’t like your UI, they’re less likely to do well with it. They also don’t tend to spend much time attempting to learn it.

How to design for both experts and novices

Create separate personas to represent novices and experts, and use those personas to step through each task. Aim for 5-7 personas. Laurian walked through some sample personas for novice and expert, using the example of a UI for an online shoe shop. The novice in this case had high domain knowledge, but was a new visitor to the site. The expert had low domain knowledge, but had browsed the shoe shore’s site often.

Make sure you have a persona for the people who hate your UI!

Take a look at usability.gov for useful resources.

Design patterns

Do’s and don’ts in design:

  • Don’t make separate user interfaces. Design the right tool from the beginning.
  • Don’t ask your users if they’re experts. You won’t get a useful answer. Look at your analytics instead.
  • Don’t use different tones for the two types of users.
  • Don’t test with only one segment of your users.
  • Do provide default options, as they help novices as well as experts, particularly for complex features.
  • Provide both a quick and an advanced search.
  • Provide help text and clear feedback. Avoid big blaring red text. Be helpful without being angry.
  • Allow users to skip or dismiss the help features.
  • If you have a lot of jargon in the UI, which assumes domain knowledge, link to a place where that jargon is explained.
  • Provide advanced options as part of the interaction flow. Use progressive disclosure.
  • Add labels to indicate advanced features. Consider hiding the advanced features until the user has gained enough experience to handle them, but make sure users can see those features if they want to.
  • Take care with custom icons. Icons can offer a quick way for users to find what they need, but remember that novices don’t know the icons. Provide tooltips.

Thanks Laurian for your useful insights into designing for a variety of user experience levels and behaviours.

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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. Leave a comment.

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