The forgotten step of document design – User Testing

There is never enough time or money to do it right, but there is always enough to do it again.

We’ve probably all come across documents that just don’t make sense to us. Text that is obscure, or forms that don’t flow logically or that ask questions we are not sure how to answer.

Believe it or not, these are not developed by people trying to make life difficult!. They are usually designed by people with good intentions, but who are not looking from the perspective of the user.

Only the user can truly evaluate a communication device. As far back as 320 BC Aristotle said: “One must consider also the audience … the reader is the judge.” If a reader or user thinks it is unclear or difficult, then it is. It doesn’t matter how much work you’ve put into it, or how good you think it is.

In document design, common sense and professional experience will take you so far. Discussing your work with a colleague (peer review) will further improve your work. But there are some things you can only find out from the users. This requires real testing, with real users in real (or closely simulated) situations. It is only as you watch people use your document that you see some of its shortcomings. Things that seem obvious or logical to you may not be to users.

The cost of poor design can be huge. A poorly designed form may generate thousands of phone calls to clarify it, or you may not get the information you need.

Yet, the cost of testing is not great – you can find out the majority of problems by testing as few as a dozen users. However, testing is often skipped, usually for budget reasons. As with many things, there is never enough time or money to do it right, but there is always enough to do it again.