Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Writing is like UI design

Writing documents is just another form of user interface design. Especially if those documents are examples or tutorials. That might be a bit of a geeky way of looking at the world but I think it is true.

I was reading this post from Jensen Harris on how difficult it is get users to criticise user interfaces. He calls it "Usability Stockholm Syndrome". Meanwhile, from his body language I could tell one of my co-workers was obviously not that happy with a document I had written on recovering if one of our systems has an error. However, I found it really hard to get him to tell me what could be improved about it. He kept saying "No it's fine." Or "It's adequate." I had to really emphasise I want to improve both my document and my writing abilities to get some useful feedback.

This reminded me of reading a great book on writing software manuals - the User Manual Manual by Michael Bremer, who also wrote Untechnical Writing. In it he looks a trying to document a user interface. Unfortunately accomplishing the simplest task requires paragraphs of difficult prose, operating 200 different GUI controls. He says it's often much better to fix the user interface so performing the task is easy, then writing the documentation will just be an easy to understand paragraph.

There are other similarities between writing and developing user interfaces:
  • The end users don't always know how to improve them, but they know when they find them difficult to read or use
  • Important elements have to come to hand quickly, more obscure details can be left until later or put somewhere more obscure
  • Eat your own dogfood is necessary for quality but not sufficient
  • Hallway usability tests work for both
There are probably a lot more, but these are the first few that come to mind. I'm not sure what benefit realising this similarity brings to the world, but when I look at articles about writing or user interface design in the future, I might try and transfer the ideas. After all, the best innovation comes from stealing ideas from other fields and applying them in a novel way.

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