Testing your documents should be an integral part of your plain-language planning and writing process, not something you do after the fact to see if your document (or your website) is a success. It’s especially important if you’re writing to hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people. The information gained in testing can save time in answering questions about your document later. Although we refer to "documents" in this section, use these same techniques to test individual web pages or complete websites. In fact, we recommend testing websites, documents, brochures, applications, mobile websites, videos, social media, and public affairs messages.
When should I start testing
Start as soon as you have enough material to test. Don’t wait until your website has been coded or your document is complete. You can test your new material using a Word or PowerPoint document; you can test a large website or document in sections. You can also test existing websites and documents.
Test as early as you can in the project, whether you’re creating something new or making revisions. Test, make corrections based on feedback, and test again. Plan to test at least twice. This process of testing, revising, and re-testing is called "iteration." Iteration is part of what makes usability testing so effective.
What types of testing are available
You can use several techniques to help you improve your document so that the final version will be successful:
- Paraphrase Testing: individual interviews, best for short documents, short web pages, and to test the questions on a survey
- Usability Testing: individual interviews, best for longer documents and web sites where finding the right information is important; also best for forms — see www.usability.gov.
- Controlled Comparative Studies: large scale studies where you don't meet the people but you collect statistics on responses; use paraphrase testing and usability testing on a smaller scale first.
Focus groups are discussions in which you learn about users' attitudes and expectations more than about whether they can find and understand information. Therefore, they are more relevant to understanding your audience before you write than to testing. For more on focus groups, see www.usability.gov/methods/analyze_current/learn/focus.html.