Usability of Documents

ISO defines usability as a measure of the effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction with which specified users can achieve a specified set of tasks in a particular environment. Based on this definition, usability of a document means an error free, document presented in an easy-to-use manner, with complete and accurate information. But it is a very difficult task to decide what makes a quality document usable.

Example: Assume that you have a document that is technically accurate, is grammatically correct, is easy-to-use, has a great glossary and index, but is written for a different audience than what it claims to cater to. In such a case, it cannot be called an usable document.

Many companies include usability as part of their advertising campaigns. Most product reviews include usability as one of the review criteria. IBM has cited a 1:10 to 1:100 cost-benefit ratio for usability. For every dollar spent implementing usability methods, the payback is between $10 and $100. Usability testing of documentation ensures that:

  • Documentation is appropriate and accurate.
  • The users can understand and easily use the product.
  • Users are provided with appropriate training, according to the requirement.
  • It is fully utilized by the users in time of need.

Creating software with usability in mind can be highly cost effective, benefiting not only the user, but also the developers, support staff, training, and documentation teams.

Example: The Shut Down button in Windows/NT, is in Start. To log off or to shut down the machine, you have to click on Start.


Almost every one must be aware of this, but imagine the plight of the person who is using the Windows/NT for the first time and is trying to locate the Shut Down button. Not in their wildest dream will they think of going to Start to log off or shut down.

A document is usable if the information satisfies the following criteria:

  • Technically accurate: The document should contain information that is accurate, complete, and up-to-date. The level of technical detail should be appropriate for the intended group of audience.
  • Easy to understand: The document should be written in an easy to understand manner and format. It should be concise and lucid.
  • Efficient to use: Clearly written, well-organized, and well-formatted documentation increase customer satisfaction by helping users solve problems more quickly and getting their jobs done more efficiently.
  • Easy to remember: Effective documentation helps in faster learning and hence easy mastery of the product. Consistency in usage of terminology and font (types and size) makes the information easy to understand and remember. Hence, the document should follow some standardized conventions.
  • Easy to navigate: Users should be able to easily locate the information they are looking for using navigational aids like TOC, index, search facility, cross references, etc. This makes the users confident and happy.


  • Visually pleasing: The document should not only be useful and appropriate to the users, it should also be pleasing to the eyes. So you should also concentrate on the format and layout of the document.
  • Easy to find: The information should be easy to locate by different people who may describe problems in different ways.

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