No One Is Immune to Usability Problems

No matter how much an organization wants to build good usability into its products and services, sometimes things get overlooked. Often it’s the little details that people don’t think of that cause the biggest problems and cost the most to fix.

That’s why having a trained technical communicator on staff is a great idea. A technical communicator is vigilant about ensuring specifications will result in a usable (meaning something that helps users achieve their goals) product. They also user test prototypes and products in the development and construction phases to make sure usability is adequate.

Recently, an organization that shall remain nameless (but I’m sure you can guess) redesigned and rebuilt its computer consoles. For a user population with an average age of late 40s, they got pretty much everything right except perhaps the most important thing: the ON button for the computers.

Oh, there is one. It’s just so small and hard to see that they needed to create a label pointing to it. And still you have to hit it with a pen or a nail file to get it to turn on. Bad. Very bad. Obviously a technical communicator was not involved anywhere in that process.

In this picture, the buttons are very tiny, as you can see. From an adult’s viewpoint, standing, with this “control panel” covering the computer that sits in the bottom of the cabinet, it is very difficult to see, as well. Therefore, it is easy for someone to press the wrong button, too. Let’s hope there are no negative consequences!

Button too small

That organization is left with two choices: pay a lot of money to re-do the work, or put up with the high level of user frustration that results. Neither choice is desirable. With a technical communicator’s eye on that re-design, this would have been avoided, because the techwriter would have questioned the size of the button given the intended user base. Indeed, every techwriter with whom I’ve shared this story has asked the same question: “Why did they do that?!”.

That’s how a technical communicator adds value to your organization — they prevent you from making costly mistakes that increase support costs. Just ask the help desk techs who have had to go turn on these computers.

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