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Topic:  Usability  principles  

This  topic  page  includes  introductory  information,  a  list  of  readings,  and  questions  to  guide  your  
reading  and  prepare  you  for  class  discussion;  it  may  also  include  an  individual  or  group  
assignment,  which  may  or  may  not  be  graded.  

Introduction  
“Usability  refers  to  whether  readers  can  use  a  print  or  an  online  document  to  easily  fulfill  their  
goals  or  accomplish  tasks”  (“usability  testing,”  Alred,  Brusaw  and  Oliu,  2015;  “ABO”).  This  topic  
sheet  includes  three  readings.  The  first,  from  ABO,  is  a  very  brief  description  of  usability  testing.  
The  second,  by  Ginny  Redish,  discusses  a  historical  interaction  between  usability  and  technical  
communication,  introducing  some  important  methods  and  concepts.  The  third,  a  rather  difficult  
reading  by  Barbara  Mirel,  addresses  her  claim  that  usefulness  has  to  be  at  the  forefront  of  
usability,  and  that  a  “structural”  approach  to  representing  the  user’s  task  environment  is  essential;  
this  third  reading  is  focused  on  usability  in  the  computer  software  environment,  but  it  has  
important  implications  in  other  fields  as  well.  

Readings  for  this  topic  

Read  the  following  entries  in  ABO.    
• “usability  testing”  
 
Read  these  two  essays:  
Redish,  J.  (2010).  Technical  Communication  and  Usability:  Intertwined  Strands  and  Mutual  
Influences.  Professional  Communication,  IEEE  Transactions  on,  53(3),  191–201.  
http://doi.org/10.1109/TPC.2010.2052861  (available  in  the  Resources  tab  on  T-­‐Square)  
Mirel,  B.  (2002).  Advancing  a  vision  of  usability.  In  B.  Mirel  &  R.  Spilka  (Eds.),  Reshaping  Technical  
Communication:  New  Directions  and  Challenges  for  the  21st  Century  (pp.  165–187).  
Mahwah,  NJ:  Lawrence  Erlbaum  (available  in  the  Resources  tab  on  T-­‐Square).  You  may  skip  
the  “Looking  ahead”  section,  pp.  183-­‐186.  

Reading  questions  
While  reading  ABO,  consider  the  following  thoughts  and  questions:  
• What  three  main  goals  does  ABO  identify  for  usability  testing?  
• ABO  asserts  that  “if  page  15  of  a  tax  form  is  unclear  to  test  participants,  it  will  likely  be  
confusing  to  most  taxpayers.”  Name  at  least  one  important,  unstated  condition  about  the  
testers  that  claim  overlooks.  
 
As  you  read  Redish,  consider  the  following  thoughts  and  questions:  
• What  does  “UX”  stand  for?  
• Redish  identifies  what  she  calls  “the  most  critical  lessons  of  usability”  (p.  193).  What  are  
they?  
• Redish  identifies  five  components  of  the  process-­‐model  framework  of  projects  at  the  
Document  Design  Center  (p.  193).  What  are  they?  
• Redish  identifies  a  technique  described  originally  by  Marshall  Atlas:  “like  a  usability  test—
having  the  user  go  through  the  procedures  in  the  document  while  using  the  product  “  (p.  
©  2015  Brian  N.  Larson  

Topic:  Usability  principles  

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193.  How  does  the  usability  expert  turn  this  into  analysis?  To  what  kind  of  data  does  it  give  
rise?  
Redish  identifies  at  least  six  methods  for  gathering  data  for  UX  design  and  usability  
analysis.  Identify  at  least  three  of  them.  
Redish  identifies  four  contributions  technical  communicators  can  often  bring  to  usability  
contexts  (p.  195).  What  are  they?  
Redish  distinguishes  little  usability  from  big  usability,  little  information  architecture  from  
big  information  architecture,  and  little  “plain  language”  from  big  plain  language  (p.  196).  
How  does  she  distinguish  them?  Why  do  you  think  she  thinks  this  is  important?  

 
As  you  read  Mirel’s  essay,  consider  these  thoughts  and  questions:  
• On  p.  167,  Mirel  sets  out  her  goal  for  the  chapter/essay.  What  is  it?  
• What  criteria  did  Gould  and  Lewis  set  on  usability  (p.  168)?  Could  you  create  a  more  
concise  definition  without  losing  any  meaning?  
• What  does  Mirel  mean  by  a  “pick  list  perspective”  in  design  (p.  168)?  
• Mirel  says  that  teams  fail  to  foreground  usefulness  because  of  “solidly  rooted,  conventional  
design  practices”  (p.  170).  She  names  three.  What  are  they?  Can  you  see  why  they  would  
interfere  with  a  focus  on  usefulness?  
• On  p.  171,  Mirel  describes  a  problem—formal  decomposition  methods—an  attempted  
solution,  and  the  reasons  that  solution  fails.  Can  you  summarize?  
• Mirel  compares  and  contrasts  “structural”  and  “procedural”  frameworks  for  representing  
tasks  (starting  at  p.  175).  Can  you  summarize  the  similarities  and  differences?    
• Note  the  definition  of  “genre”  (from  Berkenkotter  and  Huckin)  at  p.  177.  How  does  it  
compare  to  the  other  definitions  of  this  term  that  you  have  seen?  
• On  p.  179,  Mirel  contrasts  the  procedural  model,  one  where  “readers”  interpret  it  as  a  
single  act  repeated  many  times,  with  the  structural  model,  where  there  is  “a  multiplicity  of  
interpretations.”  She  gives  an  example  where  the  procedural  approach  is  appropriate.  
Think  of  one  from  your  own  field  where  the  structural  approach  would  be  appropriate.  
• On  p.  180,  Mirel  mentions  three  computer-­‐programming  models—waterfall,  iterative,  and  
extreme.  Check  Wikipedia  for  a  definition  of  the  waterfall  model.  You  can  find  a  definition  
of  “extreme  programming”  at  Wikipedia  as  well.  Below  is  a  graphic  representation  of  the  
iterative  model.  Thinking  about  the  concerns  that  Mirel  expressed  earlier  in  this  piece,  can  
you  give  an  example  of  a  situation  where  each  of  these  models  might  be  preferable  to  
achieve  “usefulness”?  

 
©  2015  Brian  N.  Larson  

 
Topic:  Usability  principles  

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Classroom  activities  for  this  topic  
None.  

Assignments  for  this  topic  

Usability  assessment  report  (group  project).  

Works  cited  
Alred,  G.  J.,  Brusaw,  C.  T.,  &  Oliu,  W.  E.  (2015).  Handbook  of  Technical  Writing  (11th  edition).  
Boston:  Bedford/St.  Martin’s.  
 
 

©  2015  Brian  N.  Larson  

Topic:  Usability  principles  

Page  3