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How to Test the Usability of Technical Documents with Tips & Tricks

How to Test the Usability of Technical Documents with Tips & Checklist

Category: Technical Documentation

Last updated on May 24, 2023

Before you feel too overjoyed at the prospect of finishing your user documentation, remember that you need to test your docs for usability. Documentation is only complete when it is verified as having served its purpose for the user, and not before. All sorts of bugs and complications might be thrown up during usability testing, which must be resolved before testing can be completed.

How do you know whether your documentation will be successful? By conducting usability testing to find out if users can accomplish specific tasks or not. It also means going through the documentation with a fine-tooth comb to determine whether or not certain features are present using a predefined checklist.

By comparing your documentation to an objective standard, you ensure that it reaches a high quality and will help more users become successful with your product. Making documentation testing a formal process is essential for product teams who care about their users and are thinking about long-term success.

What Is Documentation Testing?

Documentation testing is the process of testing the usability of the product documentation and its efficacy in helping users complete certain tasks. Testing involves finding out whether the documentation you have created to accompany your product is fit-for-purpose and easy to use, resulting in a highly desirable user experience.

Just like product testing, documentation involves recruiting actual users as well as subject matter experts and usability professionals. The documentation team, led by the technical writer, identifies whether the documentation is suitable for its users. Usability testing requires having a working prototype of the documentation which you will then present to your users for analysis.

Even if you conduct usability testing on the documentation, you still need to follow up on action points. For example, if you analyzed whether users were able to successfully use a certain feature after consulting the documentation, if the users fail to succeed then your documentation needs some work. Then you need to test it again after changes have been made to check whether usability has been achieved.

Why Is Documentation Testing Important?

Customers striving to use your products often need high-quality documentation to succeed. Enabling customers to use a self-service model of product help leads to fewer support tickets submitted and more satisfied customers overall. Documentation testing ensures that your content is fit for purpose and that customers will be able to learn and adopt your products without technical support.

When support tickets are reduced or eliminated, your company saves on support expenses and are then able to focus on more revenue-generating activities. You also lose fewer customers due to failure to adopt the product, which is directly tied to revenue. Better documentation means that even less technical users can become competent with your product, widening your potential customer base.

Sometimes usable documentation is also tied to legal or medical concerns, in which case you will not be able to release your product until your document complies with regulations. Usability testing is a vital step of this process in which you ensure that your company has checked all the boxes.

If you find that a product is hard to document, you might find it throws up all sorts of errors with the product itself which affect your usability. Documentation testing should be conducted early in the product development phase to guard against these kinds of outcomes, and leave time for refining the product before release.

What to Test in Technical Documentation/Technical documentation Testing Checklist

Table of Contents

First and foremost, you’ll want to check your table of contents. The table of contents is the representation of all the pages and sections that are included in your documentation and must be verified for accuracy. Is it laid out in a way that makes sense to your users and enables them to find what they are looking for? Are the links to each page or section working, allowing your users to jump to their desired page?

Product Name

Your product name, and including reference to all its features, should be used consistently and accurately. Customers may not use precisely the terms that you use, but if you apply them in a way that makes sense then your customers will understand what they mean. There should be agreement among the documentation, product and other teams over your product name.

Branding

Whatever product you are writing documentation for, it’s almost certain that your company will have a style guide and if you don’t have one, you should. A style guide is a document that sets out rules for writing documentation, how it should look, the use of logos, and so on. This ensures consistency throughout your documentation and that you speak with a uniform brand voice.

Version

Ensure you are using the most up-to-date version of your documentation across the board and that any revisions have been applied. Usability testing won’t work if users, subject matter experts and so on are using different versions of your content, and your documentation will quickly sprawl out of hand. Every time you receive feedback on a version of your documentation, it should be updated as a new version.

Content Accuracy

Documentation should be accurate in that it reflects the product’s capabilities and operation. If following the given instructions does not produce the results shown, then users will lose faith in the documentation and perhaps abandon the product altogether. Inaccurate documentation results in a high level of frustration and disappointed expectations, so check your documentation for accuracy as much as possible.

Technical Specifications

Your documentation should contain reference material for the technical specifications of your product in case any users are interested in this information. Your subject matter experts should verify the technical specifications to check that it adequately conveys the product, whether it is hardware or software. Technical specifications are important for prospective users who are considering your product.

Glossary

You should check whether your glossary of terms is accurate and if it contains all of the terms used within your documentation. Ideally, you will not be using more than one term to refer to the same thing, or your users will get confused. Each term should be in alphabetical order and properly explained for the comprehension of your users. Different parts of your documentation can link to the glossary for further explanation.

Readability

You should analyze your documentation for its readability, so how easy it is for users to read, absorb, and comprehend your instructions. Many factors affect how readable your documentation is, ranging from sentence length to paragraph length to length and choice of words used. Choice of visuals such as images and videos also have an impact. Ideally, unless your documentation is aimed at a highly technical audience, your documentation should not require a college degree to understand.

Navigation and Search

How easy is it for your users to navigate and search your documentation? Can they quickly find what they need, or are they prone to giving up before they locate the right results? It doesn’t matter how good your documentation is if users are cannot make use of navigation and search. Navigation allows your users to explore your documentation while search takes them directly to the right page or section. Search should be sensitive to typos and variation in search terms.

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How to Test Technical Documentation Usability?

Paraphrase Testing

Paraphrase testing is when you ask documentation users to repeat your documentation back to you in their own words, to check that they understand it. Testers go through your documentation section by section to give their feedback, and this also tells you whether you have packed too much information into a sentence or paragraph. If users can’t repeat your documentation back to you, then you need to improve comprehension. Paraphrase testing is a very thorough way to test your documentation.

Plus-Minus Testing

Plus-minus testing uses pluses and minuses that your testers mark against particular sections of your documentation to convey whether they had a positive or negative reading experience. Plus-minus testing reveals the users’ emotional reactions have to your documentation and then the reasons for their ratings are explored in individual interviews. It can also tell you any information that you need to add or subtract in your documentation based on user feedback.

Task-Based Testing

Just as the name says, task-based testing determines how easy it is for users to find and use information to complete specific tasks. This approach works well for documentation that isn’t intended to be read from beginning to end, such as user guides and manuals. You should examine the journey that users take from the start and the path they follow to achieve their goal. If users are unsuccessful at finding information, you know that your documentation needs some work.

Best Practices for Testing Documentation

Test with Real Users

Before you conduct your documentation usability testing, you should have a clear picture of who your documentation is aimed at. Real users are unlikely to have prior knowledge of your product so testing with them is vital. Insiders from the company often have valuable insight but your documentation must be targeted at real users, in order to see how your documentation will play out in real life.

Leave Enough Time for Testing

In the rush to get a product ready for market, documentation often gets left on the backburner. Make sure your definition of complete is reached only after you have conducted documentation testing, and not before. All teams should be educated on the importance of testing the documentation, without which the product risks being a failure with its target users.

Analyze Your Results

Have a system for analyzing the results of your documentation testing. This means that when you receive your results, you should effectively apply the feedback you collect to make positive changes. Don’t be disheartened if users find your documentation difficult to use – you have learned something for next time.


Know What You Want to Aim for

When testing your documentation, you need to have a goal for your content so you can recognize when you have reached it. One example of a goal might be making your documentation more accessible for your users. When you know what you want to aim for, you will be able to select tests that provide relevant insight into your progress.

Wrapping Up

Testing your documentation with users is a vital part of the definition of done. It’s better than waiting to release your product and finding that the documentation creates confusion and frustration. Documentation testing allows you to make changes and align your documentation more closely with your vision.

Document360 makes it incredibly easy to create user-friendly documentation that just works well for your users. The ability to create different versions of your tech docs means that you can subsequently reiterate on your documentation depending on the outcome of your usability testing, keeping track of changes and easily being able to revert back to previous versions.

Document360 also offers a host of other features that make it simple to check the usability of your documentation. For example, the broken link checker enables you to verify whether or not your links are working, which if not done would result in very poor usability for your users. It would be time-consuming to complete this process by hand, which means that Document360 saves you both time and money.

With Document360, you can write highly effective technical documentation for your users. It’s an important solution in your journey of testing your documentation and making sure that it meets the needs of your users.

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Kingson S

May 19, 2023

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