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Term of the Week: Usability

What is it?

The degree to which an individual can accomplish specific tasks and achieve broader goals while using a particular tool or service.

Why is it important?

Despite the constant overuse of the term and misuse of the research, industry professionals have long known that good usability often holds the key to business success both on- and off-line.

Why does a technical communicator need to know this?

Usability is traditionally associated with the technical or functional aspects of an interactive product – ease of use. For example, do the buttons work? Are they conveniently placed? Is the server response time fast enough, etc. But technical communicators need to focus on the psychological side of the usability coin: elegance and clarity. We need to communicate in a clear, concise, and understandable manner that creates a shared frame of reference with the reader.

This is the list I give my “Writing for the Web” students:

  • Don’t take anything for granted
  • Anticipate the questions people might have
  • Answer the questions they didn’t think to ask
  • Examine your content (words, images, sounds) in the context of your reader’s situation

As always, the communication environment – the time and place surrounding an experience – will affect the nature of the information needed (or provided) at any given time. For example, reading a printed manual when setting up a new smart TV will be very a different experience from that of an engineer looking for troubleshooting tips on a smart phone somewhere out in the field.

And finally (and perhaps most important of all), remember:

  • Whatever you say, say it clearly, without resorting to insider terms
  • Don’t assume everyone reads as carefully as you write

About Eric Reiss

Photo of Eric Reiss

Eric Reiss has held a wide range of jobs including: piano player, senior copywriter, player-piano repairman, jukebox restorer, pool hustler, school-bus driver, cartoonist, magician, adventure-game creator, starving student, showboat actor, and stage director. The breadth and depth of his experience have served him admirably as a usability professional.

Today, Eric is CEO of the FatDUX Group in Copenhagen, Denmark, an international user-experience design company with offices and associates in over a dozen cities worldwide. He also has several books to his credit, including the best-selling Usable Usability (John Wiley, 2012).

Term: Usability



Twitter: @elreiss