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Usability & Communication

The more you work in the usable design field, the more you notice that our challenge is predominantly one of communication. It's no surprise then, that technical writers, myself among them, migrate into usability. I would suggest, however, that I became a technical writer, years ago because I was interested in usability, rather than the other way around. It's simply taken the market a while to support even the small division of labor that the usability niche has carved for itself.

Foremost in the communication realm, we tend to emphasize the words on the screen and the way they're allocated among "controls." But I've been noticing over the years more tangential aspects to the communication challenge. As the gadget world becomes increasingly technical, the user interface is pushing out further every day… to cardboard boxes in which products ship, marketing pages on web sites, and what used to be customer service departments but are now the fun world of tech support. Perhaps this is because everything is a PC peripheral or PC-wannabee in the case of Palm Pilots, and similar devices. I was inspired to write this article when shopping for a webcam, one of those video cameras that you put on top of your PC's monitor. (I'm looking for one that looks like HAL from 2001, but so far no luck.) Anyway, right on the box was an excellent example of usability's deep roots in communication, an instruction on exactly how to tell if you had the required version of Window. With that introduction I offer this list of four points where the usability iceberg protrudes up out of the deep, murky water of interface design:

1) Naming Your Product   Talk about missing the obvious, the confusion with some products starts right off with the name itself. This has long been a problem with modules within a software product, often identified with nicknames instead of descriptive identifiers, but has been magnified a thousand-fold with the advent of the Web. As a case in point, I recently had a search problem and was unaware of any product that solved my exact problem. I wanted to find the web site for Jack Frost mountain, a ski resort, which I recalled had a name quite different from "," but I had forgotten the actual URL. With my extensive web searching experience, I could have found it using any of several tools, my favorite being's standalone meta-search engine. But I wondered if there was a search tool that would efficiently list all of the URLs owned by companies with "Jack Frost" in their actual company names.

Not ever having heard of such a tool-and with visions of IPO greenery in my eyes-I started investigating the site to see if I could query their database to make my own search engine. After digging around on their site, I found a lonely little link to a thing called "Dot Com Directory." It was exactly the tool I thought I'd have to create… you query on Jack Frost and 6 (and only 6) company names appear, no porn sites, no get-rich-quick scams, just the facts, ma'am. Coincidentally, the next day I saw a full-page ad for this Dot Com Directory, with an irrelevant, vague theme barely explaining the tool-just a big picture of a dog. If the full page was nothing more than the words "Company Lookup Search Tool," it might be the most popular site on the web. Moral for vendors: don't mistake your need to distinguish and "brand" your product with your need to identify it.

2) Package Info   Now that someone's figured out that they might want your product, they're reading your box trying to decide which of the 12 flavors of Windows they need. Kensington Webcam wins a prize for including this simple users-manual-blurb right in their system requirements list: "To determine your Windows version, right-click My Computer and choose, etc., etc." They even included a diagram! It's a technical world out there, Kensington's simply dealing with it. Will we someday need tech support to open a cereal box? (Please enter your cereal number???)

3) Rudiments of Help   OK, the customer has downloaded your doodad-to-end-all-doodads 'cause the free trial offer promised it would make them instant millionaires. But what exactly does this doodad do (said Peter Piper)? If you open up some help systems, they don't even tell you! Now you may wonder, how could one possibly have a piece of software (or intentionally download it) without already knowing what it does? Here's one scenario: I want to empty folders from a hard drive, and the only items in them are non-executable items including cryptically-named DLLS and a help file. I launch the help file and see no mention whatsoever of the basic purpose of the wonderful product, just how to use its dialogs. This easily occurs with bonus programs included with other purchases. Moral: make sure the first page of a help file tells what a program does and why you'd use it.

4) Hello, Tech Support?   Finally, your customer has realized they can't become a millionaire using the freebie version of DOODAD so they download DOODAD Plus. But they can't figure out if they really need a feature of DOODAD Pro, so they e-mail your tech support department. If you want to really set your operation apart from the pack, do as Blue Sky software (maker of RoboHELP) has done: include in the confirmation message, after submitting the Support Form, the name and phone number of the tech support manager! In my 18 years of working through tedious bugs, this is one of the most encouraging gestures of customer service I've seen. In an industry that pretends that insulating the experts from the answer seekers, and devising silly metrics is a solution to the support dilemma, this is a true breakthrough. There's no question that dealing with customer problems authentically, as Blue Sky has done, will boost any company's bottom line.

With our tech support example, we're back where we started: communication. Ultimately it is person-to-person, no matter how many layers of technology comprise the interface sandwich. Never pretend otherwise. I'll close with another software support story. After struggling with FrontPage database access, the only feature I had purchased it for, I called Microsoft techsupport. I decided in advance that if they didn't pick up the phone on the first dial attempt... if I didn't talk to a real person... if they didn't solve my problem on the first try. I was returning the program. Incredibly, they did exactly that… first dial, real person, precise answer, and it worked on the first try. I'm still on medication, recovering.

"My interest in usability arose from the pain and tears of patching the wounds of suffering interface designs with the inadequate bandages of help files and user guides." — Daniel Cohen

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