Annual Meeting Reports

Usability and Information Design: Creating Author Instructions that Work

All companies say that it’s all about the customer; in the case of author instructions, it’s all about the authors’ needs. Effective author instructions use some psychology, some research, and some simple text and aesthetics to meet author needs to raise compliance and lower frustration during the publishing process.

During this session, Annette Priest focused on basic methods for conducting usability studies: Determine the focus, study the characteristics of your audience, gather information, and then recruit participants to see how the instructions or information are being received. Robert Schumacher emphasized that those who create the interactions bear a responsibility to the users regarding that experience. Usability should focus on specified goals and tasks that the user has in mind (not what the creator of instructions thinks the user thinks).

Publishers can perform their own usability studies, although many companies will perform all the tasks needed for studies, and planning is key. In addition to asking yourself what you know about your authors and what data you have, Schumacher suggested answering these questions:

  • What (objective) do you need to learn?
  • What (thing) are you testing?
  • Whom (users) are you testing?
  • What tasks need to be done?
  • What data do you need to collect?

You should watch and, if possible, record your authors at work on your current site or a site prototype to gauge what is truly usable. You need to be able to measure whether revisions improve usability, Priest said, so think about what you will measure—whether it is how quickly, how easily, or how correctly a user can complete a task. You will also want to measure how satisfied a user is with the experience and with his or her work in completing the task.

Knowing what features you want for instructions or your Web site is not enough, Schumacher said. You have to know how to put those features together in a way that makes it easy for users to understand, use, and remember. User experience is affected not just by clear instructions but by clean aesthetics and more.

Yvonne Blanco, of Cell Press, focused on her real-work illustration experiences and how clear instructions can smooth the submission and illustration process. Some of the journals in the Cell portfolio do not have as clear instructions as others, and she can see how that affects the usability of illustrations that come to her. Authors will skim over instructions, she said, if they’re too complex or vague. When she thinks about what she would like to receive from an author, she thinks of the principles of design: order, relationships, simplicity, and then color and typography.

For a cleaner look and for directions that might appeal to authors, the speakers recommended keeping these tips in mind:

  • State in the positive; it evokes quicker responses.
  • Think about typography beyond the font (which is important) to include the case, the width of the text column, and spacing of the text.
  • Use visual examples.
  • Use common language and units of measure.
  • Revamp and change as needed to help your authors.

Blanco recommends using stylistic guidelines; give size ideas to make the authors think about what size they need to work in. She emphasized that visual examples help authors to wrap their minds around what an end product might be.

She will be working on revamping the instructions in the Cell portfolio that authors don’t follow as readily as other instructions. Following the above principles, she hopes to see increased compliance when the instructions are relevant to authors, clear, specific, and easy on the eyes—in short, author instructions that work.

Best Practices

  • Have an end result in mind for your instructions and think of ways to measure the end results and the steps of the process.
  • Ask questions internally and externally (What are the goals? Whom are we targeting?) before you begin the process.
  • Watch your target audience use your Web site or other products in real life to see how they navigate and where they get distracted or frustrated.
  • Think about using rankings with your volunteer testers to gauge how an option is being viewed across the spectrum of volunteers.
  • Use plain language.
  • As you create instructions, limit options (such as file types) so that your authors know exactly what is needed.
  • Be malleable in your work, revise, and listen. You are responsible for the experience of your users.

Important Resources from the Speakers

Some recommended reading:

  • Don’t Make me Think: Revisited (S Krug).
  • Cost-Justifying Usability: An Update for the Internet Age (RG Bias and DJ Mayhew).
  • Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works (J Redish).
  • Forms that Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability (C Jarrett, G Gaffney, and S Krug).