Most of my work over the past twenty years has been spent designing and creating communication components which are delivered digitally – Help files, wizards, UI text, knowledge-bases, etc. During that time I have produced tons of printed materials, but most of it has been for books and periodicals that I published for user assistance professionals and not the end user.

A recent project got me back in touch with the print medium and allowed me to apply some techniques that weren’t on the radar for technical writers a few years ago.

The Project

Blink Interactive asked me to lead a project for one of their clients – ACT. This is the ACT that develops and administers the test that is so familiar to hundreds of thousands of high school students. Blink is a well-respected user experience consultancy that prides itself on basing its design of anything on a thorough quantitative and qualitative analysis of the needs of the customers. The ACT had suspicions that several of their printed publications were not well suited to their student customers. The content used in these printed publications was also used on their web site and they wanted to make sure the students were getting important information related to the test.

One of the publications was a 16-page booklet, “Using Your ACT Results.” The information provided by that publication is extremely important to the examinees of the ACT Test. The document, in conjunction with the ACT score report help students understand what their scores mean and how to benefit from this knowledge. Prior to Blink getting involved, the UYAR was presented to the students as a sixteen-page printed booklet and also as web-site text. The booklet is provided to the student along with their score report and many thousands of copies are printed each year. The project took on the following phases:

  • The first phase of the project consisted of a general review of the content and design of the existing publication. It also included a review of similar publication offerings from ACT competitors.
  • The second phase was a series of interviews with ACT stakeholders regarding the nature and objectives of the various publications and customer types. Information from the stakeholder interviews was used to inform the specific project approach for the user research interviews and the redesign of the targeted publications.
  • The third phase was a detailed study of customers to better understand their needs and expectations. We examined their workflow, interaction with the publication, working environment, relationships with other customers, and satisfaction with the publication.
  • The final phase was to review and analyze the information gathered from the participants and make recommendations for improving the design and usability of the publication.

The Interviews

During the period of March 18 through April 4, 2012, I conducted user research with the goal of gaining insight into how students used the “Using Your ACT Results” (UYAR) booklet. We arranged interviews with students in Seattle, WA, Lincolnshire, IL, and the Iowa City area. Interviews were also conducted remotely via a variety of communication methods. A total of 16 students participated in the study. Participant characteristics included: male and female; public, parochial, and private; sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Table 1 shows the areas of student interest.

Table 1 – Student Areas of Interest Based on Interviews

All of the live interviews were recorded on video. This became extremely useful when describing the findings of the research of the ACT stakeholders. Nothing works better in getting the point across than showing actual customers struggling to perform tasks.  I edited key scenes from the twenty-some hours of recordings into a twenty-minute video using Windows MovieMaker. This is described in a previous post.

The following findings and recommendations were presented to the client:

1. The students had little or no memory of even seeing the UYAR booklet.

All the students needed time during the interview to acquaint themselves with the information in the booklet.

  • The focus on the student report when the scores arrived rendered the booklet “invisible.”
  • The small, dense text and newsprint stock were a deterrent to the students wanting to explore the booklet.

Recommendations. The text, layout, and production of the booklet should be designed to have a more accessible, more visually interesting style.

2. The students have a wide-range of interests with respect to the UYAR content.

During the course of the interviews, students were asked to review a copy of the printed UYAR booklet and highlight the areas that interested them. Table 1 summarizes the interests of individual students with respect to the various sections of the booklet.

Each column represents a student. Each row represents a section of the brochure. An asterisk indicates that the student selected that section of the brochure as of high interest to them. The total number of students selecting a certain section is listed in the far right column. Student initials are listed in the first row of data.

  • There is a wide range of interest levels for the UYAR topics. A few of the topics were of high interest to most of the students. Others were of no interest.
  • For the topics of interest to individual students, they generally wished they had known that the information was available close at hand.

-The best approach would be to integrate the highest interest topics directly into the student report. Explicit references could be made from the student report to the topics remaining in the booklet.
-Alternatively, the booklet might be discontinued and replaced with a web-based version.
-If the booklet is kept intact – not replaced or merged – it should be reorganized to have the topics of highest perceived value up front. A redesign of the layout could improve the usability of the document.

Designing and Writing with a New Approach

Usually, Blink presents the client with wireframe prototypes and the client then follows through with completing the work. In this case, we felt that we could take it a bit further within the budget of the project and provide a close-to-final rendering of layout, text, and graphics. The following figure shows the spread of pages 2/3.

Redesigned UYAR page 2/13 spread

The elements of high interest to the students have been given a more prominent position toward the front of the publication. Items of lesser interest have been relegated toward the back or eliminated.

A significant amount of text was replaced with several infographics designed to tell the story visually. It is possible to understand the key elements of the score report just by reviewing the graphics. The infographics can also be converted to animated images for the web site version.

Much of the text was revised to tell a similar story with more focus and fewer words. The page count was reduced in half without affecting the objectives of the publication. The significant savings in printing and mailing costs are being partially diverted to a higher-quality, more attractive paper stock.

The page design uses a more contemporary design through the selection of typeface, line-spacing, and gradients. The landscape orientation provides improved reading with a two-page spread for the content of companion pages 2/3, 4/5, and 6/7.


The final implementation of the publication as described above followed traditional technical communication methods for producing good documentation. However, the direction of the design was entirely based on the feedback from students. The interviews were very important in identifying the information that was and wasn’t relevant to today’s teenagers. The video recording was extremely helpful in informing decision-makers who were understandably wary about radically changing something that goes out to thousands of students. Over all of that was a series of bi-weekly phone meetings with stakeholders which kept the project on track and with no surprises or headaches at the end.

This project was presented at SIGDOC 2012 in Seattle.