For nearly all software products, there is some level of learning that must occur to achieve a successful user experience. This learning typically occurs by two primary mechanisms within the product. The first is through the inherent learnability built into the product design. The second is through the content quality and information design. These concepts of usability and learnability are intrinsically related, and must work in concert to ensure a positive user experience.
To provide a standard way to assess product learnability, the Simulation UX / LX Team has developed a set of Learnability Heuristics in the same mold as Nielsen’s Usability Heuristics (http://www.useit.com/papers/heuristic/heuristic_list.html):
- Good content practices: Content should adhere to good writing and video practices. Bad grammar and spelling, passive voice, use of the past- or future- tense, and hopelessly long sentences seriously degrade the learning experience.
- Searchability: Users should be able to find the information they need.
- Build-in learnability: The UI design should promote targeted understanding through the association of the discrete steps needed to perform a specific task. The user should not have to be a product expert to be able to accomplish most goals, but rather be able to leverage a discrete body of knowledge.
- Process discoverability: The product design and the learning content should work together to guide the user through complicated processes that involve multiple tasks.
- Rapid recollection: The design should promote retention and easy relearning after a break from the product. It should facilitate recognition and rapid re-association with previously learned tasks.
- Good information design: Logically group related topics together. Within topics, organize content according to the inverted pyramid model. Start with the main point in the topic, and provide supporting content in order of decreasing importance through the topic. Remember that most readers tend to move on to the next topic if they do not find what they are looking for very quickly.
- Action oriented: Content should emphasize both real tasks and what defines successful completion. Instead of focusing on individual user interface elements (the “atomic” level of the product), focus holistically on the product, and communicate actual tasks that the user will perform. Round out the description by describing (or showing) what a successful implementation of the task should look like.
- Delivery method: The framework and output format should convey the content effectively and not interfere with the user experience. A clumsy delivery method can greatly impair the effectiveness of even the best content. An obvious example is a 600 page printed book verses a topic-based help system with search capability delivered electronically on multiple platforms.
- Motivation: The user should understand the context of the UI element and how the associated learning content helps them reach their goals. The content should effectively convey the exigency (the "why") and the goal (purpose).
- Error avoidance and recovery: The content and the design should help the user to avoid known common issues. Because some problems are inevitable, the content should also describe how to resolve known potential pitfalls.
- User-centric: The content should relate to the user's world and communicate in the user's vocabulary. Product jargon is unavoidable, so at least relate the product vocabulary to the user’s world. If a “gizmo” in the user’s world is called a “widget” in the product, make this connection very clear.
To help achieve the standards described by these heuristics, we developed a series of usability and learning content development guidelines:
Design for Learnability
- Use clear and descriptive UI titles
- Design logical, self-evident workflows
- Help the user avoid mistakes
- Provide easily identifiable starting points
- Create a clear path to Help
Search and Accessibility
- Use consistent terminology in UI and Help
- Include synonymous terminology
- Include links to related content
- Create a well-designed TOC
Information and Content Design
- Describe the process
- Include a range of application types
- Describe success
- Lead with primary point
Communication with the User
- Use "real world" language
- State objectives
- Describe error correction
Good Content Practices
- Apply minimalist written content principles
- Use video best-practices
It is important to consider learnability as part of the user experience from the earliest design stages. Even the most simplistic “apps”, despite their lack of help, contain built-in learnability. For more complicated products, this inherent learnability is still vital, but must be coupled with dedicated learning content to ensure a delightful user experience. These heuristics provide a means for assessing software product learnability.