61.3, August 2014

The Quest for a Usability Theory

Menno D.T. de Jong, Editor


When it comes to the use of the term theory, technical communication is one of the modest academic disciplines. Researchers in our field conduct solid and relevant studies, with clear practical implications and the potential to contribute to a framework of academic and practical knowledge, but seldom frame their efforts in terms of theoretical contributions. I am not referring to research that is merely called theoretical because of a lack of practical implications. I am referring to theory as a generalized and widely used body of knowledge, which is built on and verified by empirical research, and which can help to predict and explain events in real life.

Having a set of well-established theories has several clear advantages for a discipline. For instance, it is easier to find communalities in different studies. Theories lead to convergence in research and to more focused discussions. Convergence, in turn, leads to more systematic referrals to earlier research contributions, which, according to the metrics that are used in the current academic publication culture, result in higher impact scores of researchers and journals. Theories also provide a basis to make sense of and find support for the findings of specific applied studies. Of course, it also works the other way around: the results of applied studies may also inspire the modification or extension of theories. And finally, in the case of academic research application processes, having established theories in a proposal significantly enhances the chances of success. And wouldn’t that be something we all want: more funded research to further the discipline of technical communication?

Usability and Theory

The development of the concept of usability may be a good example of this phenomenon. Academics and practitioners have conducted research into the usability of devices and software for decades now, but there is still not a generally accepted usability theory available, even though the tacit knowledge about usability might add up to such a theory. To verify or falsify this claim, I conducted a small literature search looking for articles combining usability and theory in the title. I found several references, most of them focusing on the usability of certain theories or of the usability of devices designed according to certain theories. One reference actually talked about usability theory, but this theory appeared to be the practice and methodology of usability engineering and usability testing. With all due respect, that is not a theory. It does not predict or explain anything, but merely prescribes a way of working, and provides the methodology to do so.

Three Theoretical Angles

The concept of usability is presumably too broad for just one theory. Several directions may be chosen. A first direction could focus on determinants of usability. Determinants may be generalized product characteristics, such as simplicity, consistency, and intuitiveness. They may also be more specific product characteristics, like the ones that are contained in heuristics. Or they may focus on the relationship between the product and its users, like the mental model hypothesis, which assumes that a good fit between a product and the users’ mental model of the product will reduce errors. A good way to work toward a theory on this aspect of usability would be a line of research that systematically seeks to analyze and explain why certain products are more usable than others.

A second direction could focus on the consequences of usability. As a matter of fact, there are already some theories available in which usability is included as one of the determinants. Most notably, the Technology Acceptance Model and its successor, the Unified Theory of Acceptance and Use of Technology (UTAUT), include perceived usability as a predictor of people’s intentions to use certain devices. The relationship between perceived and actual usability is not addressed in this context. Both theories do not seem to be influential within the technical communication domain, although users’ acceptance of technology will also be one of the concerns of a technical communicator. However, both theories are rather limited regarding the potential consequences of usability, which may be more diverse and far-reaching. More interesting are the relationships of usability with overall user experience and appreciation of products, with the overall reputation of the brand or the product, and with people’s underuse of functionality and, as a result, with the perceived usefulness of the device. Research that is designed from this theoretical angle will contribute to the value-added discussion in the technical communication literature.

A third direction could focus on the question why usability is almost always problematic in the design process of new devices or new versions of old devices. For instance, why do designers or engineers often choose to radically change everything between versions? Why do they invent functions that hardly anyone will ever use or even discover? And what causes them to develop interfaces that are hard to explain, let alone work with and memorize? Various factors may be addressed: the predispositions and competencies of designers, engineers, and/or technical communicators, the dynamics during the design process, the use of research in the design process (for instance, needs assessment, task analysis, and usability testing), and the characteristics of the organization (for instance, the organization’s mission). Many of these factors have already been addressed in research, but an overall framework, with attention to the way the factors interact with each other, is lacking. This theoretical direction is a little less pre-structured and a little more exploratory than the first two directions, but it will surely pay off if we gain a better understanding of characteristics that lead to adequate or questionable usability.

Special Issue on Theories in Technical Communication

Of course, these were just examples focusing on one specific topic within our discipline (although certainly not the least important topic). Comprehensive theoretical attention to the way users incorporate instructions while working with software or devices would be another relevant area. In the May issue of 2015, which demarcates the end of my second term as the editor of Technical Communication, I hope to present a special issue devoted to the development of theories in technical communication.

In This Issue

The three articles in this issue address very diverse topics. In the first article, Saul Carliner, Adnan Qayyum, and Juan Carlos Sanchez-Lozano present the results of a survey among technical communication managers about the extent to which they measure their productivity and the effectiveness of their work. By doing so, they confront the prescriptions in the technical communication textbooks with the technical communication practice. They conclude that the measures proposed in the literature are not widely used in practice, and that perceptions are the most significant way of assessing the value of technical communication products and services in organizations.

The second article is written by Jordan Frith. He examines online help forums as a form of technical communication. On the basis of interviews with forum moderators, he identifies five different roles of moderators and concludes that the competencies required for a good forum moderator match those of a technical communicator. As such, his article expands the possible job market for professionals with a technical communication background.

The third and last article in this issue, by Guiseppe Getto, Nathan Franklin, and Sheryl Ruszkiewicz, describes a combined teaching/research project, in the context of iFixit’s Technical Writing Project. In a qualitative case study, they examined the interactions of technical writers, technical writing students, technological devices, tools, and wiki technologies. Based on their findings, the authors reflect on the reciprocal influence of human and non-human agents, and on the role of students as knowledge workers.