Jerz: Writing for the Internet (EL236)

15 November 2004

Usability Workshop 1

Most readers of online writing are trying to do something. Usability is the measure of practical, objective factors such as how much time it takes, how many mistakes they make, and how much they remember. How users feel about the task is also part of usability -- if they hated the design or they didn't trust the author, that can affect how "useful" the site is.

Usability testing is the careful, systematic observation of a real, live user who attempts to accomplish a specific task.

The U.S. presidential election of 2000 may have been affected by the confusing design of a ballot in Palm Beach County. (I'd suggest caution when drawing political conclusions from this evidence, but it's still interesting from a design perspetive.)

As I have said numerous times in this class, our primary focus is writing, not design. But poor design can hurt the effectiveness of even the best writing.

When I evaluate your final projects, you won't be there to tell me, "Click here!" or "No, the game wants you to type, 'dance tango with mysterous stranger,' it won't accept 'dance with stranger'."

You can help ensure that I see all the hard work you put into your project, by giving an advanced protopye to a user who must learn to use it on his or her own. (As part of your project, you can of course provide your user with links to online instructions, or you can write instructions yourself... my point is that you, personally, won't be there to tell me what to do when I load your project and start exploring it.)

Often, we can improve the usability of a site without actually using it. Consider the following screencap, taken from a student project. What does this page need in order to make it more usable?


We can make changes to the form without knowing anything about the content, but as students in Writing for the Internet, you have already absorbed quite a bit of knowledge that the average person does not have. While you may see some problems with a design that the average user doesn't see, at the same time, the specialized knowledge you have absorbed in this class may blind you to problems that will be obvious to your average reader. (This is why I, as an experienced user of interactive fiction, need your opinions about what games are good for newbies, because you are experts in what it is like to encounter interactive fiction for the first time.)

Upcoming Usability Activities

Panel 1-G will be devoted to usability case studies. Exercise 2-4 will ask you to conduct a preliminary usability test on a prototype of your term project. If you don't have a prototype yet, now is the time to get one.