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CUE Paper Summary

Joseph S. Dumas, Rolf Molich, and Robin Jeffries, “Describing Usability Problems - Are We Sending the Right Message,” 
Interactions, July/August 2004, pp. 24-29.



Do you often feel like your usability reports aren’t taken seriously? Perhaps part of the problem is that engineers have trouble acting on your problem descriptions. Writing effective, usable descriptions is a skill that all usability professionals should have mastered.

Evidence that we sometimes miss the mark when we describe usability problems and solutions comes from an examination of the usability comments from the fourth Comparative Usability Evaluation (CUE-4). In CUE-4, 17 teams of experienced usability specialists independently conducted either an expert review or a usability test of the reservation Web site for the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York and wrote a report of the evaluation.

Each of the team reports contains a table of usability comments describing the usability issues that the teams found in their evaluation and in many cases an accompanying recommendation for fixing the problem. This database of issues contains 647 individual comments. While many of these comments are competent and professional, there are enough that are not to make us consider whether our communication style as usability professionals could use some polish.

In this article, we look at some of these comments in the spirit of self-examination. As usability specialists we don’t often get to see the comments of our colleagues and we don’t often receive constructive criticism of our own comments. In CUE-4, the 17 teams knew that they were writing their reports to the development team, a team that they did not know. They also knew that their report was the only way to communicate their comments. This situation is similar to a consulting arrangement in which usability specialists do not have the opportunity to explain their comments and negotiate their recommendations after the report is delivered.

We have grouped our selection of comments into the following sections:

• Emphasize the positive.

• Express your annoyance tactfully.

• Avoid usability jargon.

• Be as specific as you can.

We end with some advice for communicating more effectively.



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The paper is 5 pages long in PDF format. The file size of the electronic version is 203 KB.

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