BogieLand - Workshop: User-Centered Design in Technical Communication
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User-Centered Design in Technical Communication


Held at the European Information Development Conference 2003
(November 10, 2003 - Wiesbaden, Germany)

In theory, user support and electronic documents are the ultimate user-empowering environment. In practise, the very opposite is often the case. Many electronic documents fail to empower users and in fact frustrate and confuse them because although they offer the promise of information, solutions or support at the mere click of a mouse button, they are difficult for people to use.

Problems associated with the use of electronic documents are too often wrongly attributed to user incompetence, when in fact it is poor design that is to blame. If an error is possible, someone will make it. The designer must assume that all possible errors will occur and design so as to minimise the chance of the error in the first place, or its effects once it gets made.

Poor design is the result of insufficient focus on the users of technical documentation. Designing user-empowering documents requires a user-centered approach - a philosophy and design methodology that puts the user at the centre of the design and development process.

What is User-Centered Design?

User-centered design is an approach to interactive information development that focuses specifically on making documents usable, usefull and desirable.

There are six aspects of usability:

  1. Ease of learning: the documents needs to allow users who have never seen it before to learn to use it quickly to succeed in accomplishing basic tasks.
  2. Efficiency of use: the supporting documents needs to be designed to allow rapid accomplishment of tasks for more experienced users.
  3. Memorability: casual users of the documentation are assisted by a design that they can remember how to use it.
  4. Error minimisation: the documents should be designed to minimise the number and severity of errors, and allow for quick error recovery.
  5. Subjective satisfaction: the experience of using documentation should be a pleasant one.
  6. Accessibility: the documentation needs to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

Furthermore, user-centered design is participatory, iterative and multi-disciplinary. It is based on the active involvement of users, it uses a design process involving a cycle of design, evaluation, and redesign and a team of specialists is needed in order to provide adequate knowledge and expertise.

The BogieLand Approach

The BogieLand approach of user-centered design is based on two fundamental premises:

  1. Design should be focused on users.
  2. A scientific or engineering approach to design must be taken.

User Focus

A user-centered approach to document design requires detailed knowledge of the target audience, as this provides information about user constraints and preferences on which the design must be based. Information on the motivation, habits, preferences, cultural context, technological capacities, and physical capabilities of the target audiences is required before a single piece of text can be written.

An Engineering Approach to Design

Design is necessarily a creative process, but user-centered design dictates that the creative process should employ engineering, or problem-solving principles.

User-centered design is a systematic approach, based on methods, principles and guidelines that are derived from experience of what works and what doesn't work when real users attempt to use a document to complete real tasks.

User-centered design is not about producing documentation. However, document designers are not given a blank canvas and carte blanche to produce whatever they wish. User-centered design is about producing documents that work, so designer's are required to use their creative talents to produce an aesthetically-pleasing document ‘interface’ that also meets a range of user-centered requirements.

Design decisions are based on what works best for users. They are not determined by marketing imperatives, organisational politics, or based on the aesthetic preferences of the chief executive officer.

The user-centered design methodology is characterised by:

  1. The involvement of users throughout the design process.
  2. The use of an iterative design cycle.

A user-centered design approach involves users (actual or from target audience groups) of the documents in all phases of the design. There are a number of ways in which user participation can be facilitated throughout the design process: focus groups, questionaires, interview, observation, and/or user testing.

Iterative design is a process where a document is progressively developed and improved over a series of iterations, each the result of user testing and feedback. An iterative approach to document design acknowledges that documentsare never perfect, and can always be improved.

Iterative design is a process where a document is progressively developed and improved over a series of iterations, each the result of user testing and feedback. An iterative approach to document design acknowledges that documentsare never perfect, and can always be improved.

The Benefits of User-Centered Design

The main advantage of user-centered design is the development of documentation which is easy and pleasant for people to use. An UCD approach enhanced the user experience.

An easy-to-use document set is one that people will return to, enhances your organisation's reputation, and permits further development or transfer of business functions online.

User-centered design is about designing documentation that are easy and pleasant to use. It is a philosophy that asserts that the design process must be focused on the end user, and that document design is about using creative energy to solve a range of usability problems. User-centered design is a methodology that involves the user in all phases of its iterative design cycle.

User-centered design is crucial to the success, and the measurement of success, of all documents: paper and electronic.

Documentation is be a user-empowering tool, but only in theory. A user-centered approach to document design will give power and control back to users.