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.

Importance of Quality Documents

Writing is an art. We cannot measure the quality of art, so it is difficult to measure the quality of writing. This is one of the reasons we give for not having a standard definition for quality and usability of documentation. But we all know the quality of a document when we see it. Infact, it is much easier to spot the errors in the documents than it is to appreciate a good document.

Though quality and usability are closely related terms, quality is usually accepted as a mandatory documentation goal, but unfortunately, usability is ignored. But the truth is, unless the document is usable and user-friendly, it can’t be quality document and the vice versa. Hence, we need to focus on quality, usability, and user-friendliness of documentation. Though no one define these terms, everyone knows that the document is usable, user-friendly, or of a defined quality when they see it.

In today’s fast-paced business environment, users are interested in using products they can learn quickly and use effectively to get their jobs done faster and better. Though documentation cannot give the explanation for the problems that should not have occurred in the first place, we can ensure that the existing information is complete and accurate, making the document usable and user-friendly!

When you think everything is perfect, add one more review.
– by Robin A. Cormier

A quality product is one that complies with all the requirements set down by the customers. Hence, we can define quality document as being fit for the use it was intended for. It is very important to make the effort to add a certain level of quality into documentation. Imagine a small, yet glaring and embarrassing error that went undetected and was pointed out by a customer. When such errors occur, there is always plenty of passing the blame happening. Who is to blame? The technical writer, the editor, the technical reviewer, or the documentation manager? None! It is the error prevention system (if there is one) or the lack of it that is to be blamed.

If you examine the editorial process followed by most of the organizations, you will find that the a quality control review is usually non existent in the process. The most important part of the review is missed out in the assumption that it is not important. There may be a quality review that is more technical than being an over all quality review. Traditionally proofreading is the last step in the documentation review process.

But think again! Quality of documet is very important. Why?


  1. Helps Sell a Product  You must have used instructions of some kind to figure out how to use a product. Even toys and games; puzzle, word games, building blocks, video games, etc., come along with instructions about using it. You must have read the instructions to start a new gadget in the kitchen (mixer grinder, microwave, washing machine, blender, and so on).If you do not understand an instruction, you get the feeling that the product is not good. Infact, you feel cheated. This is where good writing helps. It helps you use a product easily and effectively. Hence it is true to say that usable documentation play an important role in the success of any product.
  2. Reduces User Frustration Users get frustrated when they find vague or wrong instructions which do not help them perform a task, especially when they are in a hurry. It not only increases their learning curve and the time taken to perform the tasks, but their level of frustration as well. Poor quality documentation may result in user confusion and frustration.

    Unclear Instructions (source:

    A good quality document means greater confidence and less frustration for the users, fewer calls to the support staff, and probably a good market for the product. So, a product is always complemented by good documentation.

  3. Can Save Lives Complete, accurate, and easy to use documentation can also save lives. There are instances where errors in documentation have been the direct cause of accidents.Example: Don Phillips published an article in the Washington Post describing the causes of a plane crash in South America killing 160 people on-board. The manual containing the radio codes were so poorly designed and written that the pilot lost critical seconds while trying to find the correct code.

    An accident investigation of an airline crash in Puerto Rico showed that a bolt was incorrectly installed in an engine due to bad documentation.

  4. Reduces Cost and Time Many organizations view documentation as added cost. If the document is not written to an acceptable level of quality and usability, it will do the following:
    • Confuse the users.
    • Require a lot of rewriting at a later stage. This is a waste of time and resource for the organization.
    • Will also affect the translation process and cost.
    • Increase the time spent by the users in trying to understand product.
    • Compared to the cost and time taken for developing a product, good documentation is not an extravagance. Quality documentation reduces support costs for the organization.
  5. Avoid Liability 

Documentation errors can lead to liability. Errors or incomplete information in the manual can create false expectations about the way the product work. Such errors make it easier for the users to win a suit for fraud or unfair trade practices. Hence the document has to clearly state what the product can do and more importantly, what it can’t. There should be no room/scope for assumptions and confusion:

Example: In November 2000 Mr. Merv Grazinski of Oklahoma City purchased a new 32 feet Winnebago motor. On his trip home, he set the cruise control at 70 mph and left the driver’s seat to go into the back and make a cup of coffee. The Winnie left the freeway and crashed.

Grazinski sued Winnebago for not advising him in the handbook that he couldn’t actually do his. He was awarded $1,750,000 plus a new Winnie. Winnebago changed their handbooks on the back of this court case, just in case there are any other complete morons buying their vehicles.