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Make Usable Documents with the User Edit Method

User Edit MethodThe User Edit Method provides a powerful way for you to evaluate the usability of documentation.  In this method, participants mark up the pages of the documentation to indicate where they had problems. In addition, you can ask participants for their recommendations about how to improve documentation.

NOTE:  A Peer review by your co-workers is not the same thing as a user edit.  Your peers are looking at technical accuracy and clarity of content, not the usability of the documentation.

With the User Edit Method, your customers are interacting with critical documentation to solve a problem.  They are very task-oriented.  User Edits are really fast.  Your customers can complete them within 10-15 minutes.  They are ideal for any new document or online Help you might want to verify or test for usability.

Information You Can Test

The user edit method can be used to find problems like:

  • Missing information
  • Incorrect information (for example, the name of a sample file is wrong)
  • Missing steps in a procedure
  • Too many steps in a procedure
  • Incorrectly ordered steps in a procedure
  • Usefulness and usability of examples
  • Ambiguous information
  • Difficult terminology
  • Usefulness of graphics, tables, charts, and other aids to text
  • Key information that isn’t noticed
  • A lack of examples or the presence of poor examples

Tips for Effective User Edits

  1. Print in Color and Black & White.  People will print in B&W often.  You will be surprised at how it affects documentation.
  2. Do Each Line Item, Then Mark It Up.  You are testing the document usability, so your customer must do each line item and mark it up.
  3. Use a Fat-Nib Marker. Tell participants to use a fat-nib marker because they are easier to see when they scan or take a photo of the marked-up document.
  4. Send Reminders.  Customers may forget to do a user edit because of other work.  Send email reminders to customers.  Most user edits take less than 10 minutes to complete.

Provide a Simple Editorial Legend

You want to provide a simple editorial mark-up legend for your customers follow.  Several years ago, Chauncey Wilson from Autodesk sent me this User Edit Method legend.  I have kept it for almost a decade.

User Edit Legend

By Chauncey Wilson


  1. Provide the documentation.  You can either print out the documentation or email it to the participants.  You do want the participants to write on this documentation, which is the purpose of the User Edit Method.
  2. Include a Mark-up Coding Scheme. You want all of your participants to use the same type of coding scheme, so you can compare the user edits between all of the participants.  An example follows:
  3. Returning the User Edit:  Participants return their User Edit for analysis.  Verify its completion before you move to the next step.
  4. Analyzing the User Edit: Perform individual analysis first.  Collate results with other users.  Most changes are apparent.
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1 Response

  1. Because we eat our own dogfood where I work, by using the tools we build everyday, we are our own customers and understand the product better than anyone including all edge cases and testing results.

    So this means we utilize this approach all the time with great success, and because we do it by sprint, we have dozens of documented pages of an entirely new product, fairly effortlessly, exactly as you describe here.

    Thanks for the article.

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