Usability: A Technical Writer’s Common Sense

by Sara LaPonte

How many times have you picked up a manual or directions and put them down less than five minutes later because you couldn’t understand them?

It’s not your fault.

Technical Writers are a branch of Professional Writers who write manuals and directions for products. Usability is a term for how well a product has been tested for its users purposes.

For example: If a remote control for a television has a POWER button that cannot be easily located, there is something wrong with the usability.

Usability can be tested in writing as well as a physical product. Making sure the manual on a remote control is readable (and well written!) is just as important as making sure the buttons are color-coordinated for easy usage. It’s also important to keep the manual at an agreeable length. The user shouldn’t be falling asleep while figuring out how to use their remote.

A podcast featuring Henry Miller and Eric Schmidt discusses minimalism and how it functions with usability. Minimalism is being conscious of word use in directions and manuals. Eric mentions in his conversation with Henry how most people want to know how to use a product, not so much how the product works. If the usability of a product is at it’s maximum, then the correct ‘amount’ of minimalism will apply to the set of directions or user’s manual.

Schmidt also makes another important point in the podcast. He recalls a workshop he attended and an exercise they did. He says, “See how many pages it takes before you actually get to touch the product…Some manuals, you don’t get to touch the product until page twenty-seven.”

These two ‘principles’ of technical writing should apply to every branch of professional writing. Being conscious of grammar and word use is important. Keeping minimalism and usability in mind will make anybody’s writing easier and maybe even more enjoyable to read.

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