In my dissertation “Improving the Usability of Official Documents: From a Decision to Online Text, Tweet and Facebook Update”, I will examine whether it is possible to improve the usability of the agendas and minutes of municipal committee meetings. The usability of such decision-making texts is essential for participation and democracy.
I have examined usability with an experiment in which ten experienced municipal communicators wrote online texts, as well as Twitter and Facebook updates, based on a decision by the City Board. During the experiment, they verbalized their reading and writing by using a think-aloud protocol. The think-aloud speech was recorded during the entire process.
The research subjects were ten communication professionals working for the City of Tampere or the City of Espoo. The research material consisted of an original document, web texts and social media updates written by the subjects, think-aloud recordings, and short interviews. The materials were examined with methods adapted from the fields of usability, text linguistics and linguistic analysis. While the thinkaloud technique is rarely used in Fennistic research, it proved to be a workable and useful method.
Applying usability criteria in the ISO 9241-11 standard for texts, I defined usability of the text as understandability, reading speed and the enjoyability of the reading experience. Usability problems identified by the subjects were divided into these three categories and their subcategories. Overall, the test subjects indicated 85 times a usability problem in the source text. The most frequently mentioned problems were the length of text, the lack of a resident’s viewpoint, the order of presentation, difficulty in identifying the main issue, problems with contextualization, the lack of
concreteness, and unclear concepts. Usability issues on the textual level were reported more often than on the sentence or word levels. The usability problems were solved primarily by shortening the text and by changing its order. The source text was reduced on average to one quarter of its original length – from four pages to one. The order was changed by moving the final paragraphs to the beginning while removing most background explanations. The choices made by the individual subjects with regard to retention, cut and order were very similar.
Attention to the city resident’s point of view became more evident in terms of both content and presentation. Subjects removed terminology and classifications related to administrative planning. Well-known local place names were retained and familiar service names (library, dental clinic) were added. The subjects also employed more concrete expressions, added examples, removed repetition, stripped down nominalizations and replaced long words with shorter ones. The percentage of long words was 33% in the source text, 27% in online texts and 22% in social media
updates. Thus, the amount of long words gradually decreased as the document was edited first for the web and then for social media.
Strategies used by individual subjects varied in terms of how thoroughly the content was summarized and how precisely the source wording was repeated. In all cases, however, the effect of the source text was significant: it acted as a register of expressions, most of which were used verbatim or slightly modified. In transferring from the source text, the subjects most often used content that emphasized the city’s strategy (working together with the residents), positive expressions (reform, develop) and marketing-oriented slogans (the top city in e-services).
Based on the research results and on previous guidelines, I formulated heuristics for municipal texts in the form of ten commandments:
- Write from the perspective of the resident.
- Present the main point at the beginning.
- Optimize the length of the text.
- Use transparent, distinctive and consistent terms.
- Favor words that residents use.
- Concretize – link concepts to perceptions.
- Contextualize – link the text to action.
- Favor short words.
- Avoid listing.
- Forget marketing.
On the basis of the study, I propose that the conventions for municipal agendas and minutes should be adapted to the practices of news and releases. A fixed presentation order or length for municipal agendas and minutes is not required by law or regulation. Hence, it would be possible to compose texts more in a more accessible style. That way they would also work more effectively online and would be easier to grasp, for both the general public and for decision makers. Improving the usability of these source texts would improve the quality of the entire chain of communications, as the wording often remains unchanged from one genre to the next. Municipal texts are mainly consulted and applied by the municipality’s own employees, so improving the quality of the texts would save resources in terms of time and workload.
Usability research brings to administrative texts an important, user-oriented perspective which has not been sufficiently studied or emphasized in the past. Text works well when the user achieves his goals quickly and comfortably. If processing a text is laborious, the solution is to improve it. The choices a writer makes will determine whether the text connects with the language and the reality of the intended reader. A well-written text will make the reader fe el included in the decision-making
process and involved with the topic. On the other hand, if the content and language are selected mainly from an administrative perspective, the text will leave the municipal resident feeling like an outsider.