Really. Even the experts at writing for non-experts sometimes muddle it up.
For the past few months, our technology and BTW committees have been collaborating to redo our BTW minor’s website (as part of a larger departmental website overhaul). This revision is particularly important to our minor: we’re dedicated to helping students learn how to communicate technical information clearly and well to non-expert audiences. Yet, for various reasons, our current website is not the best example of this kind of communication. One significant reason** is that much of the language on the website was composed by individuals who are experts. We know all of the intricacies of the minor’s curriculum. We’ve memorized people’s office locations. So, we don’t notice when someone’s office number hasn’t changed on the website, even though that person has moved at least twice since she was in that office. We don’t get it when a student doesn’t understand exactly what he needs to do to graduate on time. (“It’s all there on the website, right? Just go look at it. You’ll be fine.”)
This tension between the expertise of the web writer/developer & the needs of the audience is one of the central issues in usability and user experience, which my ENG 320 (Writing and Computers) class will explore in depth this semester. We’re working with department websites across the university to ensure that their intended audiences will be able to find information, understand it, and use it to accomplish their goals. We’ll use different versions of our department & BTW minor websites to practice usability testing – and I’m hoping that last semester’s feedback on the current site has helped us shape a draft that meets the audience’s needs. We’ll find out in a week or so…
**Another reason is the difficulty of updating previous versions of the site. From my admittedly limited experience, this seems to be less of an issue with the new website.