My Book is currently in the technical review stage — meaning that people who I and the publisher respect have been asked to read and comment on the full draft. It is a humbling, daunting, and also energizing experience, and I am deeply grateful to the reviewers for their time, energy, and expertise.
One of the reviewers asked why the book is not itself written as a collection of EPPO topics. It’s a very fair question, and one I have attempted to address before. But I think there is more to be said on the subject, or, at least, another way of saying the same thing — which is often just as valuable. I think of it as the difference between a big step back and a small step back.
I’m sure we have all answered a question about our progress on a project with “two steps forward, one step back”. On a bad day, it might have been “one step forward, two steps back.” On the very worst (but also, best) of days, it might have been, “I went back to the beginning and started again.” That’s a big step back.
I think our lives are full of these steps back. In all aspects of our lives, we act on imperfect information, and sometimes we get stuck. We have to take a step back and try again. Depending on how far we have gone wrong, and how stuck we are, we may have to take a small step back or a big step back.
If we had known everything that was relevant to what we were doing, we would not have made the false step forward and would not now need to take a step back. The need to take a step back is the wakeup call that we need some piece of information we don’t have. It is therefore the impetus that makes us look for content.
But when we look for content after taking a small step back, we are looking for something pretty limited. We are still assuming that everything we have done up to our last step was correct, and we are looking only for information on what step to take next. We are not, initially, ready to entertain the idea that we have been on the wrong path for hours, weeks, or years, or that the paths may have shifted due to tectonic shifts in our industry and the old paths now lead nowhere.
This is another way of looking at what John Carroll was talking about in The Nurnberg Funnel when he described the paradox of sense making. People do not follow instructions systematically because the world of their own experience is more real to them that what the instructions are saying. People bash ahead doing what their previous experience and mental models tell them is the right thing to do, and they keep going until they realize they have made a mistake. They then look for material that will help them recover from the mistake. This is why minimalism favors hints over procedures, and encourages the provision of troubleshooting material to help people recover from their mistakes.
People go forward based on their current knowledge and experience until they hit a snag, then they take a step back, attempt to recover, and continue on the way they were going. When they hit a snag, they look for small focussed pieces of information that will get them unstuck quickly. If the first piece of information they turn to does not seem helpful, they will quickly move on to the next in search of their quick fix. The more information they have access to, the quicker they will move from one source to the next.
Every Page is Page One favors small units of content with a well defined purpose that establish their context and link richly. This is specifically to support this reader behavior of hunting among multiple available sources for a quick hit of information to get them unstuck. EPPO is about the small step back.
We could argue about whether the small step back is the right strategy for people to use. We could look at cases where it takes people a long time to admit that they have gone fundamentally the wrong direction and need to take a big step back, and conclude that they would have been better off if they had assumed the need to take a big step back from their current mental model before they started, and researched the subject thoroughly.
On the other hand, we might observe that most of the time people are a little bit wrong, not a lot wrong, and that to take a big step back every time, would be less efficient overall than sometimes having to take many small steps back before we finally realize we need to take a big one. However we imagine it should be, however, the reality is that most people choose the small step back most of the time, and that if we want to meet their information demand, we should provide material that supports the small step back. That is what EPPO is for. It is also what minimalism is for.
But while most people prefer to take the small step back most of the time, they sometimes come to the point were the realize the need for a big step back.
The Nurnberg Funnel may advocate an approach based on hints and error recovery for people learning computer applications and similar tools, but it is not itself written in a minimalist fashion. Rather, it is a systematic laying out of the experiments that Carroll and his team did, the conclusions they drew from them, the theory they developed to address those conclusions, the experiments they did to confirm their theory, and the results of those experiments. Why? Because The Nurnberg Funnel was not designed to help information developers make a small step back, but to take a very big step back: to step back from the whole tradition of systematic instructional design and adopt a very different approach.
Carroll’s subjects learned by taking small steps back, adjusting their course slightly, and trying again, gradually making small adjustments to their mental model until they were using the systems well enough to get their jobs done. (Though not necessarily optimally — to this day, word processor users don’t use styles.) But Carroll was inviting his readers to take a big step back — the kind of step that would never be accomplished by taking a series of small steps back in the context of the systematic model of instruction. Within that model, the answer is always to be more systematic, and the small step back is always a quest for a refinement of the systematic approach. Only a big step back breaks out of that pattern and gets you to something new.
Similarly, Every Page is Page One is a call for writers, information architects, and content strategists to take a big step back — a step away from the book model for organizing content and toward a web model; away from a top-down approach to organization and towards a bottom-up approach. I am inviting the readers of my book to take that big step back, and it takes a big piece of content to do it. It takes a book.
Of course, this blog is also about Every Page is Page One, and it is in Every Page is Page One format — as most blogs are. So why am I writing a blog about taking the big step back, if blogs (and other forms of EPPO content) are suitable for small steps back? The reason is, people prefer to take small steps back, even when they really need to take a big step back. In fact, people generally can’t tell whether they need to take a big step or a small step back. Somehow a light has to go off in their head that makes them say, “hey, wait a minute, maybe I’m on the wrong path here”.
But because the realization only comes in the context of attempting a small step back from an immediate snag, if you are going to help people make that realization, you can’t do it only by writing the big step back book. You need to reach them in the small pieces of content that they read when they want to take a small step back. This is not just about this blog. It is about all EPPO content. Part of what you should be doing is helping people who need to take a big step back to realize that that is what they need. But to enable them to actually take that step, a larger piece of content may often be needed.
So, this is why my book is not written in EPPO format. It’s about taking a big step back to rethink how you design, create, and deliver content. It’s aim is to enable you to then take a big step forward.