Chris Peters's Blog

Usability of poetry

May 8, 2005

In my college Creative Writing courses, we spent the majority of class time holding poetry workshops. The more that I think about it, the more I realize that these workshops were basically rudimentary poetry usability tests. The fact that we spent the majority of class time doing this activity shows how important these “usability tests” were in drafting a poem that was a good experience.

Any good writer, whether creative or professional, knows the value of getting feedback from readers before publishing his or her work. The goal of a poetry workshop is for other writers to share details about their own personal experiences that occurred while they were reading the material. During my classes, my fellow classmates and I were to prepare the following details: who we thought the “speaker” of the poem was (age, sex, social class, etc.), what’s happening in the poem, what made the “experience” of the poem a good one, and constructive suggestions to improve the experience.

The parallel I draw from workshops and web usability tests is the types of results these sorts of “tests” produce. When you write a poem or design a website, you are crafting a form of communication that needs to be interpreted by others. You as the writer know what a line means in your poem, and you as the Web designer know where a link leads to on a Web site because it is of your design. The value in these tests and workshops is how much you learn about how others interpret your communication.

There were so many times during poetry workshops that people were way off in interpreting my work the way I intended for it to be interpreted. I had been working so closely with my material that it was impossible to be able to view it from someone else’s point of view. Seeing that no one in the class could consistently either identify who the poem’s speaker was or what the poem was about really helped me in pinpointing problems in the text. My classmates were always helpful in suggesting ways that the experience of the poem could be better, whether is was through the use of less cliches, better metaphors, or stronger line endings.

This is very similar to a simple qualitative web usability test where the tester gives a user a few tasks to perform while using a prototype interface design. Generally, the tester watches the user interact with the interface and encourages the user to think out loud, explaining to the tester what the user is reading, why they’re about to click a link, and what they think about the design in general. What the user thinks and does can end up being far from what the designer intended. But these tests usually uncover a majority of the usability issues surrounding the design.

Of course, there are differences between poetry workshops and usability studies. During poetry workshops, we never timed the readers to see how long it took them to read the poem. We reviewed the readers’ observations after they read the poem, not during the reading. And we didn’t see if the readers would switch to another poem after getting bored with the current one. But that’s mainly because of the differences in problems that the two different tests are intended to resolve.

Written by Chris Peters, your friendly neighborhood digital marketing professional with over 20 years of experience of web design, programming, SEO, and marketing.