Monthly Archives

August 2016

Introduction to problems in writing for digital media.

Examining Our Most Used Tool: Usability

August 23, 2016

A few years ago I gave a presentation at the Society for Technical Communication Summit, pointing out that although usability studies are important for making sure websites are useful, they say nothing about quality of writing. “In fact,” I claimed, “there are no tests for evaluating content quality in digital media. One well-meaning attendee said, “Of course usability tests study writing quality. There is no way a site can be usable if the writing is not well done.” His statement makes sense, but it is wrong. The problem is this. You cannot know the value of a segment of text until you know what it is supposed to do and to whom. You can only do that if your know the genres involved. There is nothing in usability that permits you to identify the genres. In fact, focusing on usability as a method of evaluation tends to obscure the genres.

If we look at definitions of usability, we find . . .

Usability is the ease of use and learnability of a human-made object. In software engineering, usability is the degree to which a software can be used by specified consumers to achieve quantified objectives with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a quantified context of use. (Wikipedia)

And . . .

Usability is about:

Effectiveness – can users complete tasks, achieve goals with the product, i.e. do what they want to do?

Efficiency – how much effort do users require to do this? (Often measured in time)

Satisfaction – what do users think about the products ease of use?

Usability is a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use. The word “usability” also refers to methods for improving ease-of-use during the design process. (UsabilityNet)

And . . .

Usability is defined by 5 quality components:

Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design

Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?

Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they reestablish proficiency?

Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?

Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design? (Jacob Nielsen)


None of the above definitions of usability has anything to say about writing quality. Nor do any say anything about identifying any genres. They are all about ease of use and navigation.

Implied Interest in Writing Quality?
Usability gurus do talk about writing quality, but they use it in the context of their definition, so they describe writing quality in terms of structures and navigation. Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think”, for example prescribes a writing style that makes navigation easier by engendering less confusion.

Technical communication professor Carol Barnum describes her approach to evaluating texts like this.

Identify unfamiliar words, or words that are used incorrectly; identify sentences/paragraphs that are unnecessarily complex; provide examples of te[x]t that is misunderstood on the first reading; identify where there are too many/few headings or overly complex organizational system; identify any information you couldn’t find easily in the table of contents, index, or other aids. (Barnum, In Usability testing and research, 2002)

This is all good advice, but it mostly involves examining structures, word choice, and simplification of the content – a variation of “don’t make me think.” There is nothing in here about evaluating the text for whether it is doing what it is supposed to do. Making the text less complex could easily be the wrong thing if you are writing to an audience of full professors like her.

A History of Usability

Here is why usability does not point out writing problems. In the past, it never had anything to do with writing. It was all about how usable physical products were. The first usability study I have ever found was done in England in the late 1800s, when British newspapers reported that a cavalry lieutenant’s sword bent in half against the armor of an enemy. The war department did usability studies of British swords until they discovered all of their flaws. Then they designed a new sword that eliminated the flaws.

During WWII, the military did usability studies of all of their weapons, after discovering they were sending defective torpedoes to their Pacific submarine fleet.

In 1959, human/computer interaction became the focus of usability study. Out of those early efforts, a new research group evolved – HCI (Human Computer Interaction). The research were made up of a variety of disciplines, including communications theorists, engineers (computer, electrical, mechanical, and manufacturing), communications professionals (information technologists, designers, writers, and editors), cognition theorists, and more.

HCI described their goal as, “develop or improve the safety, utility, effectiveness, efficiency and usability of systems that include computers.” A splinter group split out from this larger organization – or more appropriately “took it over.”

In a paper (2006) HCI spokespeople Draper and Sanger complained

As an example of how the development of general theories in HCI have been ignored, take the term “usability” which since the 1990s has become almost synonymous with all of the disciplines of HCI’s activities. The IwC Journal suggests five goals for HCI, “develop or improve the safety, utility, effectiveness, efficiency and usability of systems that include computers.” . . . Usability was the least of these five, yet has since been promoted to cover nearly everything. . . . [T]he study of HCI became the study of usability.

In its entire history, usability has never been about writing. Trying to make it about writing, now, goes against its very nature.


Usability is a critical test as a part of Web design and development, but it is only one test. There are others that have little to do with usability. For example,

  • *Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
  • *Landing Page Optimization (LPO)
  • *Metadata Analysis
  • *Code Analysis
  • *Site Analytics

All of these are done as a part of producing and maintaining an excellent site. But there is another that is virtually never done – content quality analysis. Content quality analysis would involve identifying genres in the site and making sure they are appropriate for their intended purpose and audience. This test is seldom done in digital design and development.

*I will discuss these in depth over the next weeks and months, but for the next few weeks I am focusing on writing skills.


Introduction to problems in writing for digital media.

Beginning the Internet Era

August 19, 2016

The Internet was developed as a hedge against nuclear war, designed to solve an important problem inherent in central telephone switching stations. If nuclear explosions destroyed the bulk of the major cities in this country (a real fear in the 50s and 60s), telephones would no longer be usable. All of their central switching stations would have been destroyed.

With the development of a network that used packet switching (which eliminates central switching stations), scientists, the military, and others who needed to communicate during times of war could continue exchanging information with little interruption, even with the loss major cities.

Packet Switching
On the Internet, content is cut up and integrated into packets that are labeled and sent out onto the network. It does not matter what route the packets take as they wind their ways from the source to the destination. They are as likely to go around major cities as pass through them. Nuclear problem solved. ARPANET, an network that permitted the military and scientific community to communicate around the telephone system, was born.   In time, splinter networks formed. The military got its own network (MFENet). AT&T developed USENet. Universities developed BitNet.  And there were others. Information exchange was facilitated largely via email and transferring files via File Transfer Protocol (FTP).

The Move to Hypertext
ARPANET brought something new in communication. First, documents changed. They became dynamic – alive. Any document could be easily changed as needs arose. This made making corrections easy but also made corruption of the content just as easy.  Anybody with the appropriate software could change any document they had access to. At the same time, documents could be linked to other documents and to parts of other documents. This ability to link texts to other texts was called “hypertext.” Early on, this could only be done with alphanumeric and still, graphic content.

Many forward looking writers saw this as the most important change in communication since the invention of movable type. David Bolter and Stephen Bernhardt voiced the opinions of many others of the day (including me), who all suggested hypertext or (later) hypermedia documents contained all of the various possible tools for communication, including video, animation, and interactivity. We saw the possibility of new, complicated documents that enhance the democracy of publishing and stood ready to open writing up to unimaginable vistas in the future. We were correct. Communication is completely changed in many respects. We recognized that the world was receiving something altogether new.

From 1995, when a few people were building interactive websites others could access, to what we see today on the Internet (a complete and dramatic revolution in communication), took less than 15 years.

Spiraling Out of Control

While a brief history of the development of the World Wide Web might be interesting, that is not my purpose here. In that short time, the WWW spiraled out of control. And that is what I will be addressing in this series of blogs.

Although writers saw the potential future for communication, they were not programmers, and, for the most part, only programmers had the skills to develop these documents. So programmers, not writers, pushed the WWW into its future, defining its metaphors as they pushed. What writers and editors saw as documents, the programmers saw as places — “sites.” These “place” metaphors completely changed the way people looked at the Web. Today, everybody “goes” to “,” which they see as a store (although it is actually a hyper-catalog).

The early Web became something of a disaster — hard to use, slow, very badly written, no understanding of how to use graphics, confusing, often without purpose, and etc.

First Solution

There were programmers and other technicians who specialized in studying human/computer interaction. Among them was a group who studied usability. They were trying to make usability an issue in computer and software programming. It was clear that usability was missing in the Web.

Some of the usability gurus who had been working with usability in computer programming branched off to examining Web design. They developed usability studies for the Web. Web developers immediately embraced this concept, and a great deal of effort was put into making the Web more usable.

Usability gurus finally brought us “user centric writing.” Usability writing seems to bring written content under control, but it does not.

The biggest problem is this: Usability gurus as well informed as Jacob Nielson have prescribed that before we can develop an excellent website, we need to know what its genre is. They are only partially right. We only know whether some block of text is working if we know what it is supposed to do – that is to say, “When we know its genre.” BUT . . .

Lots of Genres on Every Page

. . . the genres on the Web are significantly changed from the old ones (printed and typed), and since only a few people really have a good sense of what a genre really is, nobody seems to know what is going on with the new ones.

In the old tradition, you could count on a document being one genre — some kind of brochure, or specification sheet, or report, etc. In digital media, a Web page might begin with a menu, followed by half a spec. sheet sharing space with another menu. There might be a sales pitch further down the page, and that might be followed by a block of reviews. These are all different genres! all on the same page! and this is only a short list of the thousands of different genres on the Internet.

That, then, is the problem. Writers have a tool for making certain the navigation and use of the internet works well. They do not have a tool for knowing whether the content works. The purpose of this blog. and, indeed, this site is to explore that problem.

More information about here.

Introduction to problems in writing for digital media.

The Past, Present, and Future of Professional Communication

August 19, 2016

This is going to sound like it is about me, but, in fact, it is all about you.

There is a saying: “If you don’t understand history, you are destined to repeat it.” Right now, the history I mean is the history of those people who are now discouraged by their unemployment and their inability to find good new jobs. They complain that they were left behind. This is perhaps the greatest tragedy of a dynamic economy. People get left behind. They reach middle-age and they look up and see the end of their financial security coming at them like a runaway locomotive.

But there is another way of seeing that problem. The economy is going to change over time. We all know it. Worse, it seems to be changing faster and faster. Technical writers are happily writing online help, manuals, guides, and other important material and suddenly they start hearing the phrase, “single sourcing,” and terms like ASP/SQL, XML, DITA, RSS, AJAX, and more. In what seems like a flash, their old skills are not worth as much.

They no more adapt to single sourcing and they begin hearing “creative economy,” “outsourcing,” and “offshoring,” and their skills become worth even less.

When I was hired at USU, I was tasked with identifying emerging technologies and teaching them to my students. It was our goal to always be teaching on the cutting edge of the profession. I have spent the past 25 years keeping up with all the changes — and there were many of them.

The problem is this: as with all professions, as writers, you keep up or you will be left behind. What follows is my proof.

The Profession 40 years ago
When I began my career as a writer and designer, I worked in a shop that perpetually smelled of hot wax. We created layouts, comprehensives, and paste-ups as a part of our day-to-day work. To paste something down onto a paste-up, we ran it through a hot waxer and pasted the item down with the hot wax (onto a sheet of cardboard on a table that lighted the paste-up from underneath (a light table)) so we could see where to paste the content. The machine creating the type we pasted down (a Lynotype) created the type in lead in real time. The lead was inked and printed on a page. That is where the profession was when I began it.

I remember once taking the paste-up of a book to the printer with the book in a box exposed to the sun. When I got there, the sun had melted the wax and the book had come unglued. Knowing that the paste-up needed to stay in the shade was valuable information back then. Of course now it is irrelevant.

I once took a photo of a man (sans hardhat) driving a construction machine. We needed the technicians to put the hardhat on the man digitally. The computer they used filled a room, took two men to run it, and the project took a day of programming – and cost $700K. Today, I can do that in 30 seconds with a software that costs $10 a month.

Staying Relevant
I have stayed relevant through the decades by changing as circumstances demanded. When PC computers became available, I got an AT&T 8086 with two floppy drives and a word processing software called WordPerfect (there were no hard drives yet).

When Corel Draw came out, I began doing my drawings digitally.

When PageMaker and Ventura Publisher came out, I purchased each and began exploring desktop publishing.

A new software called “ToolBook” allowed me to begin building hypertext documents, and later versions permitted me to do hypermedia.

A little app called “Composer” was attached to the original Netscape browser, and it allowed me to build webpages as early as 1995.

I won’t bore you with more, but the thing that kept me relevant was keeping up with the evolution of the profession. That is the most important advice I can give you. To stay relevant, you need to keep up. That requires a habit of lifelong learning.

The Takeaway
Many of the things I teach on this site are as alien to traditional writers as quantum physics is. The big difference is this: if you know nothing about quantum physics, there is no harm, no foul. If you don’t understand the future of professional writing, you will be left behind.

Introduction to problems in writing for digital media.

Introducing ReaderCentric Writing

August 19, 2016

I advocate a reader-centric approach to writing on the Internet. For me, reader-centric writing has specific meaning. It is writing that assumes you have a reader and not a user. It assumes you have to use different styles of writing to impact all of these audiences appropriately. To do this, you need to be able to write in four styles: (1) persuasion-centric, (2) quality-centric, (3) instruction-centric, and (4) user-centric. Each is important in its way.

Persuasion-Centric writing in digital media
Suppose you are trying to sell a $4,000 camera on the internet. Do you suppose a user–centric model will work by itself? Or do you think you would need to meet the needs of a collection of different individuals.

We don’t have any camera stores with informed sales people where I live, so I bought that $4,000 camera based entirely on information I gleaned from the Internet. Then a $1,400 lens for it, and an $1,800 lens and an $1,100 lens (plus accessories). Then I bought another $1,400 camera to round out the system. That is  $10,000 worth of purchases (including accessories) based entirely on information gleaned from the Internet.

To sell this equipment to me and to people like me, you have to provide me with all of the information I need (so it will be long), and you need to do it exceptionally well, and you need to do it persuasively. I call that “persuasion-centric writing. Excellent persuasion-centric writing is characterized by its persuasiveness and its length (it will be as long as it needs to be to persuade).

Quality-centric writing in digital media
This is writing that depends entirely on its quality to keep readers engaged. Go to YouTube and you will see it at its best and worst. There are videos on YouTube that go for 2 hours but keep their readers (viewers) engaged, and there are videos you leave within the first 60 seconds. Quality of information and presentation keeps you engaged — if you are interested in the content. Quality-centric writing is typically entertaining (e.g., a novel, a movie, a documentary, article, chapter, whitepaper, reviews etc).

Instruction-centric writing in digital media
is new for me . . . I used to merge it into Quality-centric, but I think it has its own space in writing styles.

This writing can also be extremely long (e.g., textbook, online textbook, online class, etc.). In some senses, this class is an example of instruction-centric writing. Tutorials and instructional reviews fit into this style as well.

User-centric writing in digital media
User-centric writing is designed to get the reader to what he or she needs as quickly as possible. It provides information in short snippets, and bulleted or numbered lists. This writing style will dominate navigation pages, while the other styles will be found on the content pages. Usability gurus will say the whole site needs to be written in this manner — obviously, I don’t agree.

There are probably other writing styles I haven’t found yet. Or these styles may be broken into smaller segments I don’t understand yet.

Problem with writing styles on the Internet–with examples
The overwhelming problem with all of these different writing styles is that on the Internet they appear in genres we don’t recognize or understand, and the genres are often segmented into broken genres that are often scattered across the page.

If you look at a typical page, you can see this problem universally.

At the top, you will find about half a specification sheet. Surrounded by different kinds of menus.

Further down the page you will find some more of the spec sheet. This material is (and should be) written entirely in a user-centric style.

Further down the page is the product description. This is usually written in a user-centric style, but this is where you sell your product and it should be written in a persuasion-centric style.

Finally, you will find reviews. Some will be instruction-centric and some will be quality-centric.

In the end, the page closes with user-centric material.

For more information about Interactive Media Research Laboratory, click here.

Introduction to ReaderCentric Writing

ReaderCentric Design is a New Response to User-Centric Design

August 19, 2016

Fundamental to ReaderCentric Design is the certanty that content on the Internet is made up of genres demanding a variety of different writing styles.

These writing styles include user-centric (the style most prescribed by usability gurus), persuasion-centric (typically long enough to convince the reader to do something, buy something, or think something new), and quality-centric (long but it engages readers and keeps them engaged), instruction-centric (long and educational) .

One of the important problems with the genres on the Internet is they can be sliced and diced until they are hardly recognizable, but being able to work with them demands we know what they are.

For more information about us, click here.