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Technical Writing: Usability Lessons from Cell Phone Help

Technical Writing: Usability Lessons from Cell Phone Help

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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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