To ensure your documentation is accurate, accessible and easy to understand, you need to test it on typical users. Tight budgets and deadlines often don’t allow for usability testing, but trialling your documentation can be very easy and cost-effective. Read below how to run a quick and simple user test, and download a sample questionnaire.
Usability guru Jakob Nielsen says “the best results come from testing no more than 5 users and running as many small tests as you can afford.”1
But even with just one or two test users, you get a lot more feedback than if you didn’t do a test at all. Anything is better than nothing, and in our experience, more than three users give you diminishing returns unless you have a large and varied audience.
If you do have a number of distinct audiences, ensure that each group is represented among the trial participants.
How to get useful information from the trial
To get useful information from the trial, it is best to structure what the participants do, and what kind of information they give you.
A trial questionnaire is a good way to focus the participants’ attention on critical system features or critical tasks covered in the documentation.
What to put in a trial questionnaire
A trial questionnaire will often contain:
- background information on the purpose of the trial and the documentation
- scenarios in which trial participants need to navigate the documentation and find information, and
- spaces for general comments on how easy or difficult the participants found the documentation to use.
During the trial
If you are present at the trial, resist the temptation to help the participants complete the questionnaire scenarios at all costs. Do not explain your thinking when you were writing the content, or provide additional information that is not in the documentation being trialled. It can be hard not to become defensive, but it is important to take any user reactions and comments with an open mind.
Evaluating trial results
Of course the best-case outcome is always when trial participants have no trouble completing trial scenarios and report that the documentation is easy to use. Knowing that your documentation works is rewarding and satisfying.
If the trial uncovers issues, rank them in order of importance and consider the implications of making changes on the project budget and schedule. You might need to involve the project manager or sponsor to agree to any changes.
Download a sample trial questionnaire to get started (MS Word file, 3 pages, 33KB).
1. Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox: March 19, 2000. Why You Only Need to Test with 5 Users