Background and Interest in the Topic
My consulting firm Tec-Ed began in 1967 as a computer documentation services firm. We wrote user manuals, online help, and training materials for mainframe computers when computing was moving from an engineering specialty to the business and personal necessity it has become. A huge community of novice computer users was just emerging; those people needed help that hardware and software engineers did not provide.
In our early work, Tec-Ed translated from technical to business terminology. We explained how to use complex computer products for applications from accounting to wafer fabrication. Because we observed how many communication issues were related to the context of use, we began to “build in” task analysis to our work process.
We also became one of the first communication organizations to apply John Carroll’s minimalist model for instructional design on a regular basis. Dr. Carroll described our minimalist projects for Xerox in his 1990 book on minimalism, The Nurnberg Funnel. For several years, I taught Minimalist Design for Documentation for the University of California Santa Cruz; a chapter about this course appears in Dr. Carroll’s 1998 book, Minimalism Beyond the Nurnberg Funnel.
As minicomputers and then PCs came into widespread use, it became increasingly clear that even the best documentation and training couldn’t cure “user-hostile” systems. To help computer users succeed, we needed to improve the whole product, not just the user assistance—so in the mid-80s we moved into HCI.
Today I’m delighted to see that our professions have become more integrated. User experience includes all aspects of people’s involvement with products and systems, so it subsumes both traditional UI design and our original focus on documentation and user assistance. It also means that concerns about readability are relevant to a much wider professional community than ever before.
Another reason why this topic is a central concern today is that there is so much more to read! A huge amount of information must be consumed daily for people to function in their work and personal lives. The burgeoning supply of web pages and information-rich web applications puts people who don’t read easily at a serious disadvantage.
I believe the Design to Read workshops will succeed in addressing the challenges of designing for people who don’t read easily. The diversity of these target audiences will require all the skills of the impressive group of CHI workshop participants, and I’m eager to see what we can accomplish.
About ten years ago, my oldest friend lost most of his vision due to complications from diabetes, and is now legally blind. Since then, I have been observing his frustrations and workarounds using a combination of assistive tools to read. I’ve been both impressed and appalled at the ways our current technologies do—and don’t—support the information-delivery needs of the visually impaired:
- A device smaller than my mobile phone stores more than 1,000 books and reads them aloud to him
- Most major software products and websites display their normal text in large print and can be read by screen reading devices
- But if an error message appears, the same software reverts to displaying 8-point type which the screen reader doesn’t recognize, making problem solution impossible without help from a sighted person
- The Apple Mac OS X is designed to operate by voice commands, an admirable goal that led my friend to consider switching to a Mac
- But no one in the Apple support structure can answer questions about VoiceOver, nor does it reliably interface with Apple’s spreadsheet and email products (I have lots of anecdotes that may be relevant to other voice recognition issues)
Helping my intelligent and computer-literate friend with his reading difficulties has made me question just how much overlap there is between the problems of people who can’t see the words and those whose reading comprehension is impaired by disabilities, context of use, or native language.
Issues to Discuss
As we “explore the question of whether one approach can work for all, or whether compromises are necessary,” I’d like us to consider which aspects or segments of an approach might be valuable for all people who don’t read easily. That is, I think it’s worthwhile to identify some areas of commonality, even if we can’t define one single approach.
Another issue I’d like is to address is the ongoing struggle between some aspects of “design” and readability, with practitioners in our professions clashing over how something “looks-and-feels” versus how it functions for reading.
Issues to Avoid
Although at first I couldn’t think of any, after reading the other position papers I want to weigh in with Ginny that we shouldn’t invest any time considering readability formulas and grade level assessments.