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Pros test their draft documents — with readers

Photo Credit: estherase via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: estherase via Compfight cc

Because pro writers recognize their limitations, they adopt practices designed to overcome them. One of those practices is testing a draft before delivering the final document. That’s why I highlighted the practice within my post: What is plain language? (Part Four: Putting It All Together in a Process).

There are lots of document quality testing methods. While the source is “aging,” Karen Schriver’s 1989 summary of methods is the best overview I’ve seen. She provides the figure shown below, which displays methods on a continuum from text-focused to expert-focused to reader-focused.

Schriver concluded,

When practical considerations such as time and expense allow, reader-focused methods are preferable to text-focused and expert-judgment-focused methods because they shift the primary job of representing the text’s problems from the writer or expert to the reader. Thus, reader-focused methods help minimize the chances of failing to detect problems. In addition, reader-focused methods expand the scope of text problems that get noticed, shifting the evaluator’s attention to global problems, especially problems of visual and verbal omissions.

So reader-focused methods are the best tests of document quality. Although reader testing can be expensive, cost is no reason to dismiss it. Jakob Nielsen made the argument convincingly in Guerrilla HCI: Using Discount Usability Engineering to Penetrate the Intimidation Barrier. Reader testing can be a simple as asking your actual reader to review a draft.

A while back, I promised a short video tutorial on reader testing. It’s on my list of to-do items for this summer . . . In the meantime, you can check out usability testing from the Center for Plain Language or user testing from the Nielsen Norman Group.

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