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Unexpected Complexity in a Traditional Usability Study

Tharon W. Howard

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 3, Issue 4, August 2008, pp. 189-205

Article Contents


Visual versus Verbal Designs

One of the principal ways which Longman wished to distinguish its new handbook from the long-time market leader was to attempt to primarily deliver the content for the book visually rather than verbally. Our particular study compared the usability of a brand new grammar handbook designed entirely around the visual delivery of grammar and other writing conventions with a grammar handbook that has been the market leader and that is extremely verbal in its delivery of content.

As Figure 1 illustrates, Diana Hacker's A Writer's Reference (2006, p. 236) depends mainly on prose discussion to deliver the content it covers. Grammatical rules and conventions are stated in the traditional vocabulary of grammarians. Examples of the rules being discussed are provided, and these are usually set off from the prose discussion by maroon-colored bullets and boldfaced font. Occasionally, a maroon caret symbol or ^ is used beneath a line of text to call attention to an important punctuation. Alternatively, an italics font is used to call attention to key words in the example.

Sample page from market leading handbook

Figure 1. Sample page from market leading handbook

The Longman prototype handbook, however, seeks to minimize the amount of prose used to deliver content as well as grammatical terminology. As Figure 2 shows, the Longman prototype uses a variety of visual techniques to deliver content. Color coding is used to call attention to the differences in locations where phrases may be added in a basic sentence and then to show what those phrases look like and how they are punctuated. Also, rather than using terminology like "adding a medial modifier to an independent clause," the language here is much simpler and accessible to a non-specialist audience.

Sample page from prototype handbook

Figure 2. Sample page from prototype handbook

In terms of its approach to MLA documentation, the Hacker handbook approached content delivery in essentially the same fashion as was illustrated in Figure 1, using the same page layout and conventions to deliver its content. Because of its visual orientation, however, the Longman prototype used a different visual to illustrate to students and users how to prepare a works cited entry (see Figure 3).

MLA works cited visual in prototype

Figure 3. MLA works cited visual in prototype

Our study sought to determine whether the traditional verbal or the newer visual approach was more usable.

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