All documents should be tested before being published

A document is a communication product.
All products should be tested before release.
So, test documents before publishing.

Business and government documents (including web text) are ‘functional documents’. They perform a function: people use these documents to do something. Functional documents include contracts, reports, advice, disclosures, fact sheets, policies, procedures, terms and conditions, letters. These communication products should be tested to make sure they achieve purpose.

There is never enough time or money to do it right,
but there is always enough time and money to do it again.

We would never release a car, phone, table or chair without testing. All these products are created with care by skilful people, but they are all tested in some way before release. Information products should be tested too – even those written with care by experts.

Testing reduces risk

Business and government documents are written:

  1. to achieve a business goal
  2. to meet users’ (readers’) needs.

You can only know these goals are likely to be met by testing. If you don’t test, you are just guessing. The time and effort invested in creating, writing, designing and publishing the document may be wasted. (Consider the hourly rate of all involved – could be thousands of dollars.)

Not testing may be reckless

Often documents are published whenever the writer says “that’s good enough”. In many cases this amounts to reckless writing – an indifference to whether the information is understood, a carelessness about how information is acted on. And that’s risky for both reader and writer.

Readers may be harmed if they don’t understand documents. They may act in a way that is not in their best interests.

Writers can’t blame the reader if they don’t get it. They may not be able to blame the reader even if they don’t read the document. The question is shifting from “Did you read the document?”, aimed at the reader, to “Is the document readable?”, aimed at the writer.

Testing is cheap and easy

Simple usability tests can be run with as few as 5 test subjects. The tests can be designed and run on-line – that’s what is all about. These tests will help you find most problems in your document so you can fix them before publishing.

Some mechanical readability tests are free. These tests are helpful but incomplete (it’s possible to write highly readable rubbish). They show whether the text will be easy enough for readers, but they don’t test whether the information is useful or likely to be acted on. They don’t test overall structure.