Ten tests to avoid reckless writing

Reckless writing: Preparing a document without a deliberate and considered concern for readers, or a writer failing to apply their mind to consider how a document will be understood.

The extent of your testing will be determined by the complexity of your document, your users and what they need to do with the document, and the risk of not understanding or acting on the document.

If you choose not to test, then you are relying solely on own judgement. That could be both arrogant and reckless.

You won’t use all these ideas for every document. Choose the ones most suitable for your purpose.

  1. Ask for comments about the document.
    Ask: What did you think? Did all that make sense?
    Sometimes general, unspecific questions can reveal useful insights about the document.
  2. Use readability formulae
    Tests like the Flesch-Kincaid grade level and the Flesch reading ease score are good basic indicators of the complexity of the text. But they are mechanical indicators only and don’t consider context.
  3. Conduct a structured interview
    Ask questions like: What do you think this means?Anything you are unsure about? What confused you? What did you expect to find? Any sentences you needed to read twice?
    Structure your questions around the document’s purpose.
  4. Devise a multiple choice test
    This will likely focus on testing understanding of the content.
    These tests are easy on participants. However, they may not pick up all the issues with the document, only those predicted by the questioner.
  5. Set some problems to solve
    Ask users to solve a real scenario to be solved by reading the document.
    For example, when testing understanding of a will, you could ask something like: ‘You, your wife and your second son dies. What happens to your house?’
  6. Set a full comprehension test
    This is an extension of a multiple choice test but may include free responses.
    Include questions like: How did you reach that conclusion? What did you find first before reaching your answer?
  7. Response time tests
    Set some comprehension or scenario questions or both.
    Measure the time it takes users to find the correct answer in the document.
  8. Fill in the gaps
    Remove every 5th or 6th word – users fill in missing word from the context.
    This tests overall understanding of the document.
  9. Paraphrase the document
    Ask users to tell the message of the document back to you, as though they were explaining it to a friend.
    This tests overall understanding and whether the document is likely to achieve its intended purpose.
  10. Think aloud
    Ask the user to read each sentence, one at a time, aloud. Ask them to explains their reactions or thoughts after each sentence.
    This will help you understand your users’ thought processes as they read the document.
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