“Usability in Govt Sys” book review from Society for Technical Communication

The Society for Technical Communication has published a review of my book.

The June 2013 issue of Technical Communication Online, STC’s Journal, contains a review of Usability in Government Systems: User Experience Design for Citizens and Public Servants, the book from Morgan Kaufmann Press that Dianne Murray and I edited. The review, written by STC former book review editor Avon J. Murphy, begins as follows:

Elizabeth Buie and Dianne Murray have pulled together a book that is long overdue. Government computer systems affect everyone, but until now, no book has focused on improving the user interaction with those systems.

The editors do most things right. Their collection of 24 chapters by 41 authors spread over nearly every part of the globe provides an international kaleidoscope rich in detail.

Murphy likes the international flavor and rich detail of the book and applauds the inclusion of case studies, success factors, and further reading. He finds eight chapters “particularly useful and interesting” for himself, and he calls particular attention to chapters he sees as strongly relevant to technical communication. Murphy points out three chapters whose authors will be familiar to STC members — plain language, content strategy, and usability testing — and I was pleased to see his description of my own chapter, “Getting UX into the Contract” (coauthored with Timo Jokela), as a don’t-miss for people who work with contracts. Murphy recommends that usability folks working with government systems buy the book and that technical communicators borrow it to read specific chapters.

Murphy also expresses three criticisms. To two of them I say “fair enough”:

  1. Some chapters, Murphy says, “are dull reading, with too many long, often boring paragraphs.”
    Honestly, I wish we had had more time to edit the writing of our chapter authors who are better subject-matter experts than they are writers in English. I like to think we will have the opportunity to improve those chapters in future editions of the book.
  2. The second concern, he describes as “an interesting usability weakness”. (Ouch!) “Neither the detailed table of contents”, he writes, “nor the biographical section identifies who wrote which chapter.” This, he says, makes the book harder to navigate.
    This is a good point, and I suspect it will be easy to add chapter authors to the ToC in future editions.

Murphy’s third criticism, however, does not hold water. Some of the chapters, he writes (citing specifically the ones on security, privacy, and policymaking), “seem not to apply directly to usability at all.” This comment appears to miss the fact that this book addresses not only usability but the broader concept of user experience, and that it covers not only immediate interaction with electronic systems but also the contexts in which those interactions occur. Moreover, electronic system usability directly affects citizen security and privacy: The usability of online security, for example, has received much attention from usability experts such as Dana Chisnell and from business publications as important as Forbes. This book is about applying usability engineering to all aspects of system design that affect citizens’ experiences of interacting with government.

Right, enough grousing. On the whole, I’m very happy with this review. It is overall quite positive, it gives some specific feedback that Dianne and I can address in future editions, and it encourages people to buy the book. I could hardly ask for more.

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  1. Avon J. Murphy
    Posted 4 September 2013 at 12:52 am | Permalink

    Thanks for responding to my review of your very useful book, Elizabeth. My reading notes contained even more positive things, but a word limit of 500+ words didn’t let me say all of them!

    You make a good point about your focus on user experience, not just usability. I think the problem I had with the three chapters that you mention is their authors’ not making the connections between their topics and user experience/usability as explicitly as do other contributors; as writers, we need to make sure that our readers can see those connections after reading our prose. I do know the work of Dana Chisnell. You link to one of her excellent articles–and here she uses an overall structure, rhetorical questions, bullets, and before-and-after examples that together make it impossible not to see her connections between security and usability. (A long-time developmental editor, I’m always coaxing authors to make their readers’ job as easy as possible.)

    Another thing I didn’t have room to say in the review: I wish that I could have had your book during the eight years that I was the technical writer within a state legislature. For someone like me, it would have been a treasure.


  2. Posted 4 September 2013 at 3:08 am | Permalink

    Fair enough, Avon; thank you for clarifying your point. We will take a look at that if and when we do a second edition.

    Thanks for your additional kind words!

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