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Usability Testing: Influencing Design Decisions and Improving Documentation

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Pedagogies of Making and Design

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Anneliese Watt Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

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Anneliese Watt is a professor of English at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. She teaches and researches technical and professional communication, rhetoric and composition, medicine in literature, and other humanities elective courses for engineering and science students. Her graduate work in rhetoric and literature was completed at Penn State, and her recent research often focuses on engineering and workplace communication as well as medical humanities.

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Ashley Bernal Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

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Ashley Bernal is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. She received her PhD from Georgia Institute of Technology in 2011. She was an American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) teaching fellow and Student Teaching Enhancement Partnership (STEP) Fellow. Prior to receiving her PhD, she worked as a subsystems engineer at Boeing on the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (JUCAS) program. Her research areas of interest include piezoelectrics, nanomanufacturing, optical measuring techniques, and intercultural design.

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Scott Kirkpatrick Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

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Scott Kirkpatrick is an Assistant Professor of Physics and Optical Engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. He teaches physics, semiconductor processes, and micro electrical and mechanical systems (MEMS). His research interests include heat engines, magnetron sputtering, and nanomaterial self-assembly. His masters thesis work at the University of Nebraska Lincoln focused on reactive sputtering process control. His doctoral dissertation at the University of Nebraska Lincoln investigated High Power Impulse Magnetron Sputtering.

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Instruction-writing is a genre of engineering communication frequently taught in both technical writing classrooms and engineering design classes, as students might, for example, be asked to write a manual documenting how to assemble, operate, or maintain the objects or equipment they have designed. The benefits of user testing of instructions are well established in both professional practice and academic literature. In the technical communication classroom, the pedagogy of usability emphasizes having test subjects (as representative of target users as possible) use a draft of the instructions to complete the desired action, in the process exposing flaws in the text of the instructions: areas of ambiguity, lack of clarity, need for visuals, organizational problems, and the like. The instructions are then revised based on user feedback. The authors of this paper (professors of technical communication, physics and optical engineering, and mechanical engineering) have created and teach a multi-disciplinary course inspired by the NAE’s Grand Challenges for Engineering, in which the students design, build, and document a technology meant to address one or more of the challenges in a particular location (for example, harness solar energy economically to build infrastructure in Haiti). This is a full-time, 12-credit hour summer program, and this summer we added usability testing to the design and documentation process. Instead of just testing their design, students also tested their user documentation. The professors served as test subjects (we’ll discuss the pros and cons of this), and many problems with the intended process and documentation were exposed. Students then revised not only the instructions they had written for their intended users, but also details of the design itself and its method of deployment. This integrated testing and revision process was a source of satisfaction for the instructors beyond that found in the stand-alone technical communication or engineering design classroom.

Watt, A., & Bernal, A., & Kirkpatrick, S. (2016, June), Usability Testing: Influencing Design Decisions and Improving Documentation Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.27110

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