Boston Broadside
May/June 2002
Vol. 59,  No. 5
    Newsletter of the Boston Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication


Copyright © STC Boston 2002

From the Tech Writing Trenches

Analyzing Users’ Tasks

By Fran Sullivan

"Believe it or not, users aren’t interested in using your online help despite how well it may be designed. They are interested in getting a job done." This seemed to be one of the themes of the WinWriters 2001 conference that I attended, and it was a theme I took to heart and thought about for weeks. What was it my users wanted to do if they didn’t want to spend hours admiring my help or even click on the Help button to display it?

I knew from usability findings that users generally turned to help or manuals only in a crisis or emergency when they need an answer fast, but what was their job or the work they wanted to accomplish? Well, that was pretty clear… they surely wanted to use the software. For example, when using our software to prepare design data, I determined that users wanted to place probes, define a board layers, and generate output for test programming tools. When using our test-programming tool software, I determined that they wanted to select options and generate test programs. Aha, I thought, this was surely the answer… users want to learn to use our software in the best possible way with as little pain as possible.

But then I asked engineering, support, and marketing to tell me what our users wanted to accomplish with the product. They told me that users want to create tests to verify the circuits on a circuit board, describe the circuit board, generate test programs and prepare CAD data for input into test programming tools. They wanted to determine the number of shorts and opens on a board and how many boards failed. After all, our main users were test developers or engineers in the business of finding faults with circuit boards. Aha, I thought, this is surely the answer…users want to test circuit boards!

But when I attended project meetings and training, I kept the question of what users wanted to do with our products in the back of my mind. As I learned about manufacturing line beat rates, fast-cycle times, and starting production faster, I realized that while users did want to use the software, it was not the ultimate goal of their workday as the image in my mind had suggested. They wanted to use the software in the same way, as I would want to use Microsoft Word or Adobe FrameMaker, as a tool to get the job done. I realized our users wanted to manufacture their product as quickly as possible, just like I wanted to produce online help or books to meet deadlines.

Fran Sullivan is a technical writer at Teradyne, where she designs and writes online help systems and end user manuals. Fran can be reached by e-mail at .

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