Recently, I suggested that the move to topic based documentation should be understood as a move away from the textbook model of documentation towards a user assistance model. This move reflects a change in priorities, putting more emphasis on readers who want to learn and less on those who want to be taught.
But can we justify this change in priorities? Can we be confident that the majority of our readers actually do prefer to learn by doing rather than by being taught. If we believe John Carroll’s minimalism studies, we certainly should incline in that direction, but we also have to recognize that sometimes some readers will still want to be taught, rather than learn by doing. The question is, can we make reasonable assumptions about what proportion of our particular user community falls into each camp?
I think the answer is actually pretty simple. I think it comes down to confidence. I think confident users want to get on with the job and learn by doing. I think non-confident users want to be taught before they try to do real work with the product. And what is the object of being taught? It is to gain confidence. If your teaching is successful, your student will become a confident user who then wants to get on with the job and learn by doing.
In part, confidence is a matter of personality. Some people are naturally hesitant and unwilling to take any kind of risk. These people will always want to be taught. But for most people, non-confidence is a specific and limited condition. I am not confident in my ability to do some particular thing because I don’t have a mental model of how to do that thing. Once I have a mental model of the task, my confidence returns.
The question we should be asking, therefore, is how confident are our typical users likely to be that their mental model fits the tool and the task. If you believe that they are likely to be confident, you should be supporting leaning by doing; you should be writing topics.
Notice that the question isn’t whether the user’s mental model is actually correct. It is the user’s confidence in their mental model, not its correctness, that influences their choice to learn by doing or to seek to be taught. Even if you are confident that the user’s mental model is in fact wrong, and needs to be reset, you can’t address this by creating a textbook. Unless and until the user’s confidence is destroyed by failure to complete a task as expected, they are not going to allocate time to read the textbook.
What this does highlight, is that when you create a whole documentation set in the user assistance model, that documentation has to do more than traditional context-sensitive help would do. It needs to recognize that when the user, in learn-by-doing mode, gets stuck and consults the docs, the topic they land on has to help them recognize if the root cause of their problem is that their mental model is wrong. And it has to do it without being a textbook, because the reader is, at this point, still not willing to read a textbook.
Of course, new mental models are not formed in an instant, nor are they entirely formed by study. Ultimately, they are formed by experience, and so it is by no means necessary for the documentation to drop the reader back into a textbook the moment they realize that there is a flaw in their mental model. They are, in that moment, in a prime position to reset their model through practical, hands-on experience. If the docs can, at that point, push them towards a new mental model, and prevent their confidence from lagging, they can continue to work in learn-by-doing mode, and recourse to the textbook can be avoided.
What this tells me, though, is that there is more to designing and writing topics than simply being brief. A topic has a sophisticated role to play in maintaining and building a user’s confidence, and by subtly and appropriately rectifying their mental model when the time is ripe to do so. This is a subject that I thing merits much thought and study.
What do you think?