Back in the day, tech writers were the vanguard of software usability; the way to make software easier to use was to write a better user manual. But then along came usability, and writers discovered that they could better serve their readers by helping engineers to make software easier to use. Writers also made their instructions more accessible by providing user assistance in the form of UI text, tooltips, and context-sensitive help.
Nowadays we hear less about usability and more about user experience. In fact, the Usability Professionals Association (UPA) recently changed its name to the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA). How did this happen, and what does it mean for the future of our profession? What is the role of technical writing in this new universe?
About Our Speaker
Nicki L. Davis, Ph.D. wrote her first user manual in 1980 while studying for her Ph.D. in chemistry. She has worked as a technical writer for over 35 years and conducted her first usability test in 1992. Nicki has served the Berkeley chapter of STC as treasurer, secretary, and most recently as president. She holds the honorary rank of STC Associate Fellow.
Date: Thursday, 5 JANUARY 2018.
Summary: As a 35-year tech comm vet, Nicki Davis knows a thing or two about how to help engineers improve their designs to enhance user experience. Her presentation on January 4 revealed how technical writers can contribute, and inspired more than a few nodding heads, war stories and chuckles. Read more…
EBSTC members, you really should have attended Nicki’s presentation in person to appreciate these best moments:
- How a 6’ x 6’ minicomputer with 64k of RAM inspired this PhD candidate to became a technical writer as well as a chemist
- OK/Cancel cartoons (Copyright © 2003-2010 Tom Chi / Kevin Cheng) illustrating the many challenges of an HCI pro and often, writers too
- Nicki’s visible delight at her audience’s enthusiastic reception and related stories
Writing and HCI teams face common goals and challenges
While HCI folks are primarily focused on visual design and patterns within a graphical user interface, they share the writer’s goals to minimize wordy text, maintain a consistent vocabulary and deliver what users actually need. As fellow technical communicators, they too are champions of task and user analysis, usability testing and taking the end user’s perspective. But both groups also share the difficulty of getting respect, recognition and early access to make the most impact for a positive user experience.
We also share the challenge to influence developers, project managers and UI designers who don’t feel guilty saying, “They’ll learn!” when we point out poor design, often too late in the project. An especially galling point was Nicki’s observation that at one old-school company, learning a particularly difficult software interface was considered a rite of passage for new team members.
Eyes rolled when Nicki presented common challenges faced by both writers and HCI staff:
- Various Dilbert strips by Scott Adams (Dilbert © 2018, Andrews McMeel Syndication) in her presentation featuring Tina the Tech Writer
- Measuring ROI by page count or words per day rather than fewer calls to technical support
- “It’s too early for your feedback right now, just make it pretty.”
- Last minute, token additions to project budgets to cover usability
- Disrespect and rudeness when we point out a usability flaw
- Short-sighted project managers, developers and designers who just don’t get usability
- Content sourced from Marketing rather than the writing group
- Organizational silos that separate HCI from writers
What can we writers do to impact user experience?
- Seek out your company’s HCI group, which may be named UI, UX, or Human Factors
- Learn how your company approaches usability
- Seek ownership of customer-facing text (button and tool names, context sensitive help, dynamic user guidance)
- Volunteer to perform design Verification and Validation tasks ahead of implementation
- Advocate for usability testing by real users where the project team can witness their struggles
Ultimately, if you want to influence and improve the user experience of products produced by your company, you need to communicate internally to inform, educate and demonstrate how your core skills can contribute to project teams and end user satisfaction.
Meanwhile, enjoy Nicki’s presentation and its cartoon illustrations.