There’s no substitute for observing your readers

usability testing from wupI like to highlight best practices in writing for the workplace when I see them. Here’s a terrific example. This morning, Judy Knighton posted Listen to your readers! at Write, “a professional services firm that helps government and business organisations create clear, reader-friendly communications” located in New Zealand. I’ve written about audience analysis and posted a video tutorial on the topic here before. I’ve also highlighted how the usability process can be successfully used to develop written materials. In that post, I noted that some version of reader observation can be used by anyone writing in the workplace.

Here’s part of what Judy wrote about her recent reader observations:

I’m doing a series of user tests on an investment statement for a KiwiSaver scheme. I’m using a couple of test methodologies. In the first part of the test, the reader goes through a section of the investment statement and talks about what they’re thinking as they read. In the second part, they answer some specific questions about the content so that I can see whether the information was easy to find and understand.It’s fascinating watching different reading strategies at work. Yesterday, I conducted three tests and saw three completely different strategies.

Read everything

Reader one started at the beginning of the Key Information section, and read every line and every word. At each cross reference to more detailed information, she turned to that page and read the detail before going back to continue with the Key Information section.

Read summary in order, and skim the rest

Reader two started at the beginning of the Key Information section and read it through. She skipped a few paragraphs when the headings indicated that the content wouldn’t interest her. She then started on the detailed information and skimmed through the headings, stopping to read detailed content that discussed questions she had in her mind from the Key Information section.

Read what looks interesting, and then find a real person to question

Reader three flipped through the document from the back. He then opened the Key Information section, skipped past the first page because he thought from the headings that it would tell him stuff he already knew, read a paragraph or two, skipped some more sections because he decided they didn’t apply to him, and finished the Key Information section in record time. He then turned back to read in detail some of the information he skipped, this time turning for more detailed information at the cross references. Deciding that the detailed information was too detailed, he returned to the Key Information section and read most of it, coming up with a short list of questions that he said he’d phone in.

Write for your readers

To me, this demonstrates the power of headings in writing for your readers – and the power of user testing to find out whether you’ve succeeded.

I couldn’t agree more with Judy’s conclusions. There’s no substitute for actually observing your readers deal with a document — despite how humbling the experience is (if you’re the writer).

And, when I get time, I’ll create a short video tutorial on reader testing. It is one of the cornerstones of the undergraduate business communication course I taught for decades! Here are two short explanations of various document testing methods: usability testing from the Center for Plain Language and protocol tests and focus groups from the US Air Force. Stay tuned . . .

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