Developing Usable Online Information for a Web Authoring Tool

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In the context of this paper, usability is a term that refers to how easy it is to understand and use a computer software application. Testing for usability has become an integral part of the product development process [12] because it allows developers to design efficient, functional software based on user feedback.

To date there has been considerable research on developing usability testing methods for computer software; however, relatively few methods exist to test the usability of documentation, the printed and online support material that helps people use software applications. Unlike software products, there are no standard ways to use documentation. Users seldom read documentation material from cover to cover. Instead they use a variety of techniques to retrieve information depending on their needs. Measuring the effectiveness of these retrieval devices is important; however, because it is difficult to determine what usability means in the context of documentation, there are few tools.

This paper describes an approach using two checklists to test the usability of an online user guide for a Web authoring tool called Tapestry. The checklists are designed to assess certain quantifiable features of the document, such as the conciseness of their writing style and the degree to which their organization is user-centered. The authors also address some of the usability and marketing issues that arose during development of the software itself.

The paper concludes with a discussion of the lessons learned about evaluating the usability of documentation as well as the advantages and disadvantages of the checklist approach.


Usability evaluation, usability checklist, quality documentation, software user guide testing, practical methods.


This paper discusses the development of an informal checklist that improves the usability of online information for a software user guide. The paper: (1) summarizes existing ways to measure the usability of documentation; (2) describes the development of a checklist to informally measure usability and quality assurance; (3) applies the checklist to an online user guide for a World Wide Web authoring tool called Tapestry. The paper also describes how the checklists were developed from academic and industry research and illustrates the importance of the Web for distributing user information.


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This paper was presented at the ACM SIGDOC96 (Special Interest Group on Systems Documentation) Conference in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, USA, October 20 to 23, 1996. The theme of the conference was - Marshalling New Technological Forces: Building a Corporate, Academic, and User-Oriented Triangle. Reprinted by permission, © ACM, Inc. Issue October 17, 1996.

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