Usability testing the Editorial Style Guide site

In December 2020 we transformed the Editorial Style Guide from a PDF to a website. We wanted to make sure that what we created was both useful and usable, so we approached staff to take part in usability testing.

The Editorial Style Guide is an important tool when it comes to preparing written content for the University. A part of the wider University Design System, it sets out how we use words to design content, with conventions for areas like spelling, punctuation and formatting.  Anyone preparing content for the University should be able to easily access and make use of the Editorial Style Guide.

The guide has existed for over a decade, and at the end of 2020 it was published as a website, moving away from an inflexible and rather inaccessible PDF format. On the new site, there are conventions for digital and print content in the one place,  all arranged into sections, with videos from the ‘Effective Digital Content’ course to offer help understanding concepts of content design.

The University of Edinburgh Editorial Style Guide site

Transforming the Editorial Style Guide into a website was driven by the need to ensure that the guide was both useful and usable by all.

You can read more about the transformation of the Editorial Style Guide in the blog:

A revolutionised Editorial Style Guide – creating a single source of truth

User research was crucial to ensure Style Guide was developed in line with user needs. Usability testing is a key technique in the field of user-centred research and design.  Essentially, it involves showing a product or service to representative users and asking them to perform tasks to gauge how well the product or service supports what it is meant to do. For the Editorial Style Guide, we carried out usability tests on a draft version of the site with staff.

User experience techniques – Usability testing

Who took part in the usability tests

We approached eleven staff from across the University with varying levels of experience of using the original guide to take part in individual usability test sessions. We wanted to build a site that everyone could use, so it was important to include staff who had significant experience of writing content for the University – who wrote content often and were well-versed in the conventions of the Style Guide , as well as those for whom content-writing was a more occasional and infrequent activity. In the same vein, we reached out to new staff as well as to staff who had worked for the University for years to obtain wide-ranging insights from the research.

What we wanted to find out

Overall, we wanted the tests to help us ascertain whether our assumption that the site was usable and useful was correct. We wanted to understand how well the site structure supported search and whether its content was sufficiently clear. More specifically, we wanted this research to help us answer specific questions about the new site:

  • Would the new site make sense to users?
  • How would they respond to the new sections and the training videos in the guide?
  • Would they still use the PDF version of the guide with the new site in place?
  • Would they seek separate guides for print and digital content?
  • Would they respond to being able to question the evidence and reasoning behind conventions in the guide?

With the main sections prepared, the training videos added, and the option to download the PDF version of the guide, the draft site was in good shape to be tried out.

How we structured the tests

To address our wider questions, we began each session by asking the staff member to orientate themselves with the site and to tell us their impressions and expectations. To address the more specific questions, we presented them with a piece of text and asked them to use the site to do the following tasks:

  • Find the correct way to format a heading
  • Look for advice about structuring text for a link
  • Check the spelling of a particular word.

Finally, we asked each staff member to imagine they disagreed with a convention in the Style Guide, and to tell us how they would question it. This part of the usability test was designed to explore needs for transparency of evidence supporting conventions in the guide, and users’ expectations around this.

What we learned – minor tweaks

In the tests, all eleven staff were able to navigate the site’s sections successfully and complete the tasks. This was a ‘thumbs-up’, and affirmed acceptability of the site in terms of its overall structure and  content. The tests also told us about tweaks we could implement to make the site a bit better. These included:

  • Including more examples – to supplement explanations and aid understanding of individual points of style
  • Adding cross links between sections – to increase the speed of finding the right information to solve questions.

Everyone who took part in the testing welcomed the notion of being able to question points in the Style Guide. To do this, they looked for a contact email address or form which they could use to pose the question. They all found a ‘Contact us’ option but were reluctant to use it for questioning advice in the guide. Adding a contact form for enquiries was a quick way to make this facility more visible, however,  deciding where enquiries sent through the form would go, and how they would be handled, was a topic for wider consideration.

What we learned – wider considerations

Further insights relating to how staff used the guide and how they prepared content shed light on the following questions we set out to consider:

Training videos – not as useful as we thought

Most staff said they wouldn’t watch the short videos we had included from the ‘Effective Digital Content’ course when they were looking to clarify a point of style, but that they thought these were a good idea. How else could we present or offer these videos?

It was easy to search the PDF

Most staff sought to download the PDF version of the guide and talked about using a ‘Control +F’ shortcut as a quick and easy way to pinpoint precise things within the PDF. Was there a place for the PDF in the new site? Could the ‘Control + F’ search be recreated in the new web format?

There was support for just one guide – for digital and print

Several staff had noted cross-over between the two formats, especially in the light of Covid-19 where many publications intended for print ended up being published digitally. Could the two separate guides could become one?

In the course of the tests, other issues and questions were raised by the staff.

What was the scope of the guide?

Some staff noted that conventions in the guide were not universally applied to University systems and platforms which often meant an inconsistent user experience. How could the conventions become more universally applied?  Should the guide detail its scope?

Should plain language be the default?

Several commented that the guide’s ‘language and tone’ section advocating for use of plain language was contradictory to conventions in the ‘Referring to the University’ section, which recommended more formal use of words. Should plain language always be the default? Which sources of evidence should inform these decisions?

What we did next – acting on the findings

Predictably, we did the easy tweaks first, adding more examples of good practice, cross linking sections and including a contact form.

In light of the discovery that there was an appetite to still use the PDF, we decided to keep a link to it in the new site, however, we made changes to improve its accessibility, and we will continue to review whether it is used. We chose a similar course of action for the training videos, including them in the site with a view to tracking and reviewing their usage.

Working closely with the Communications and Marketing content team, we identified ways to adapt the site to include advice about preparing content for digital and print in the one place, alleviating the need for two separate guides.

To address other issues, as well as the longer-term maintenance of the site, there was a clear need for discussions to take place between stakeholders with an interest in defining University style. It became clear that forming a community or group of interested parties could help define ways to evidence and review the conventions in the guide, and discuss their application across the University.

The idea of the Editorial Working Group was conceived, with the aim of maintaining and managing the Editorial Style Guide, to help keep it alive, current and relevant. Establishing this group for the Style Guide could serve as a valuable pilot to help inform the wider work of establishing processes around the University Design System.

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