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Technical Writing: Usability Lessons from Cell Phone Help

T.R. Girill Technical Literacy Project leader, STC and LLNL

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Technical Writing: Usability Lessons From Cell Phone Help

In a recent article about new or unusual job prospects in
user service, Joe Welinske notes the growing demand for those who
can design effective help ("user assistance" or UA) for cell
phones or other mobile devices ("Developing User Assistance for
Mobile Applications," Intercom, November 2011, pp. 6-10). He feels
that the key talent needed here is "micro-conciseness," which
involves four communication skills:

1. Careful Word Choice,
"coming up with precisely the right words" to instruct or clarify
a complex situation. Welinske illustrates with a project management
app whose instructions can be simplified to require only three
verbs totaling only four syllables:
TAP Project
TYPE the project name
TAP Client
TYPE a client name
SELECT the client
TAP Start
No show-off language and polysyllabic terms here, just simple prose
relaying basic moves--a great model to copy.

2. Terseness,
"limiting the volume of text" displayed to supply help or answer
questions. Welinske offers several apps that answer questions
using sticky-note patches or simple grids with a short sentence
in each spot. Students need to remember, however, that "smart
terseness" is very usable (sentences, for example, relay complete
facts or acts since they have the crucial parts to do it--subjects
and verbs), while "stupid terseness" only confuses users ("like
step 4," for example, has neither a subject nor a verb, so does
not really assert anything).

3. Task Focus,
focusing on "the task at hand" and avoiding irrelevant details.
Welinske illustrates with a 3-panel help display for a calendar
app. In the instructions for setting an alarm, the first two
help panels contain the first two steps (in terse sentences).
The third panel says "there is no step three," thus overtly
signalling users that they have completed the task and can safely
move on.

4. Visual Aids,
using "well-crafted images and video" to supplement text answers.
One cell-phone app includes outline arrows to show direction
(along with words), because some users do not know what the word
"counterclockwise" means. Small symbols or icons are common
of course (such as the ubiquitious trash can for "delete"). But
adding a visual index or catalog of such images to explain the
mysterious ones is an easy way to improve their usability for
those who do not recognize them on sight.

This "micro-conciseness" advice applies much more widely
than just for the severely constrained case of help messages on
cell phones. In school, students too often get implicit (and
sometimes even explicit) encouragement to be (needlessly)
verbose--to fill up 5-paragraph essays with words just to pad
the format (and because they have no real audience anyway).
But real scientists and engineers HAVE an audience (sometimes
professional colleagues, sometimes congressional appropriators,
sometimes concerned citizens) who really do benefit from these
micro-conciseness techniques. Technical readers want usability
in real life, not just in their cell-phone apps. So science
writers have an obligation to learn how to provide it--in
your science class. A place to start:

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