Usability Testing: Influencing Design Decisions and Improving Documentation
Anneliese Watt, Ashley Bernal, Scott Kirkpatrick
2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition Proceedings
Anneliese Watt is a professor of English at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. She teaches and researches technical and professional communication, rhetoric and composition, medicine in literature, and other humanities elective courses for engineering and science students. Her graduate work in rhetoric and literature was completed at Penn State, and her recent research often focuses on engineering and workplace communication as well as medical humanities. Abstract Instruction-writing is a
... e of engineering communication frequently taught in both technical writing classrooms and engineering design classes, as students might, for example, be asked to write a manual documenting how to assemble, operate, or maintain the objects or equipment they have designed. The benefits of user testing of instructions are well established in both professional practice and academic literature. In the technical communication classroom, the pedagogy of usability emphasizes having test subjects (as representative of target users as possible) use a draft of the instructions to complete the desired action, in the process exposing flaws in the text of the instructions: areas of ambiguity, lack of clarity, need for visuals, organizational problems, and the like. The instructions are then revised based on user feedback. The authors of this paper (professors of technical communication, physics and optical engineering, and mechanical engineering) have created and teach a multi-disciplinary course inspired by the NAE's Grand Challenges for Engineering, in which the students design, build, and document a technology meant to address one or more of the challenges in a particular location (for example, harness solar energy economically to build infrastructure in Haiti). This is a full-time, 12-credit hour summer program, and this summer we added usability testing to the design and documentation process. Instead of just testing their design, students also tested their user documentation. The professors served as test subjects, and many problems with the intended process and documentation were exposed. Students then revised not only the instructions they had written for their intended users, but also details of the design itself and its method of deployment. This integrated testing and revision process was a source of satisfaction for the instructors beyond that found in the stand-alone technical communication or engineering design classroom.