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Resources: UPA 2005 Idea Markets

Interactions between usability and training

Activator: Kirsten Robinson, The MathWorks

The Activator's Initial Questions

As a former trainer who became a usability professional, I was interested in the interactions between these two roles. Do usability and training professionals work together, or is there tension between us? We both seek to understand users and tasks and improve users’ performance. However, improved usability can reduce the need for training and trainers. I polled the attendees at UPA’s Idea Market session to find out more.

The posted questions were:

  • Big Question: What are the interactions between usability and training?
  • When do you train participants for a usability test? How?
  • What can we learn from trainers or by observing training?
  • How can usability professionals and trainers leverage each other’s knowledge and artifacts?
  • How do you respond to, “We can train around that issue”?

Attendees who were former or current technical communicators had a lot to say, sometimes with strong feelings. Other attendees who were primarily usability professionals focused mostly on the last question.

Interactions between usability and training

  • Trainers may be good participants for usability tests or informants for field research.
  • Training classes can be like a giant usability test; they are a good source of usability issues for new users.
  • Usability can get involved in evaluating and improving the usability of help and e-learning systems. Inadequate usability in these systems is frustrating for technical communicators and users alike.

Training participants

This topic generated the most discussion. In general, attendees agreed this is appropriate when the product is for expert users or when you need to get over barriers to use, such as lack of prerequisite experience or fear of change. Never train participants for a “walk up and use” interface such as an e-commerce site.

  • One usability professional said that she trained doctors before usability testing an electronic medical records system. The doctors had little computer experience, were resistant to the change, and had concerns about privacy. Training was provided a week or two in advance of the testing, and the doctors had time to practice using the system.
  • It also may be necessary to train participants when working with a complex product such as a programming environment. For example, you might explain the purpose of a function that you are testing.
  • Some training or orientation is appropriate when you need to eliminate the fear factor that a new system may lead to job elimination.
  • Some usability professionals considered the participant warm-up, in which we make participants comfortable and explain the format and purpose of the test, to be a form of training.

Training observers

Attendees expanded on my initial questions, pointing out that it is important to train people who are observing a usability test. This maximizes the benefits of observing and reduces the risk that observers will influence the participant or make him or her uncomfortable. Key messages for observers include:

  • Be quiet
  • Listen to and observe the participant
  • Don’t jump to conclusions from a single testing session; attend multiple sessions if at all possible
  • Don’t start redesigning during the test

Working with trainers

My next question was, how can usability professionals and trainers leverage each others’ knowledge and artifacts? Responses included:

  • If a usability issue can’t be fixed, it becomes a training issue. Usability professionals can inform trainers about these issues.
  • Sometimes the usability person is the trainer. A benefit of this arrangement is that the usability person is familiar with the “gotchas” in the product that will require training coverage.
  • Many technical communicators became usability professionals because they were tired of being the “mop and bucket” attempting to clean up after poor usability.

Training around issues

Most usability professionals have heard, as an excuse for not fixing a usability problem, “We can train around that issue.” UPA attendees had a couple of good responses to this statement:

  • Not everyone attends training.
  • If a problem can be fixed, why not fix it?


The most intriguing statement I heard during the Idea Market was from a usability professional who said, “If training takes more than half a day, then I have failed.” In other words, reducing the amount of training can be a usability goal. Given this, I asked whether we are a threat to trainers’ job security. The consensus was that there will always be a need for some training. It’s my hope that usability and training professionals can work together, along with other user-facing groups such as customer service, to improve the overall user experience.



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