Reading Ray’s post, also sparks this thought. It is a common and sometimes catastrophic error to confuse an analytic truth with a synthetic truth. That is, it is an error to confuse a truth about how to analyse something into its parts with a truth about how that thing should be organized and presented to users.
Take pizza for example.
An analysis of pizza reveals that pizza essentially consists of three parts:
There are hundreds of different pizza recipes, but all of them consist of crust sauce, and toppings. This is an analytic truth about pizza. It is not the only way to categorize the things that go into pizza. It is also an analytic truth that pizza contains the four food groups, grains, meat, vegetables, and dairy. But that it consists of crust, sauce, and toppings is, nevertheless, a useful analytic truth about pizza.
Similarly, it is an analytic truth about technical content that it consists of concepts, tasks, and references. There are other ways of analyzing technical content, but concept, task, and reference definitely have analytic value.
What synthetic truth can we derive from these analytic truths? In the case of technical content, many have reached the synthetic conclusion that concepts, tasks, and references should be presented to the reader separately.
How would that stack up in the pizza world? The parallel conclusion would be that diners want their crust, sauce, and toppings served separately, as separate courses, or at separate restaurants.
Clearly this is not true of pizza, so why would we think it is true of content?
We could make the case, I suppose, that concept, task, and reference represent different reasons for readers to use content. Concepts are used for learning, tasks for doing, and references for looking stuff up. That’s reasonable enough. But what makes us think that readers do these three things separately? Why would we think a user would want to do a task without looking anything up? Why would they want to learn something about a product or a tool unless they had some task to do with it? The fact is that learning, doing, and looking stuff up are highly related and integrated activities that work together to get stuff done.
Given that they are highly related activities, there is analytic value in recognizing that they are supported by different kinds of information. For instance, we could use this analysis to audit content to make sure that when a concept is mentioned in a procedure, there is adequate conceptual material present to support it, or that if a procedure requires you to enter particular kinds of information, there is at least some guidance on where to look that information up.
The analysis, in other words, can be useful to verify that the synthesis has been done properly, that the diner is being served a pizza which has crust, sauce and toppings. But the rules of synthesis are not contained in the analysis of parts. It requires a different kind of knowledge to know that the crust goes on the bottom, the sauce in the middle, and the toppings on top.
In fact, the rules of synthesis — the art of synthesis — is much more subtle and complex than the rules of analysis. We see this in many fields. Professors of English don’t generally make great novelists, nor critics great actors or directors. The art of dissection is not the art of construction, nor the art of creation. You do not learn synthesis by practicing analysis.
Of course, we must not overlook the fact that technical communication is a commercial pursuit, not a literary one. Companies have a legitimate interest in ways of increasing productivity and improving consistency in the technical content they produce. Breaking down content into small structured units is a good way to improve consistency and productivity. (The benefits are non-trivial, and consistent across many fields, as a study of the Lean Thinking movement or of agile software development will demonstrate.)
It was clearly tempting for tech writing organizations in search of a way to break content production into smaller units to turn to an existing analytic framework like that provided by information mapping. But in turning to task, concept, and reference as analytic categories, we missed the fact that useful content is not created by separating these categories but by fusing them together in the correct way.
The fact of the matter is that there may be a generic analysis, but there is no generic synthesis. All pizzas can be analysed into crust, sauce, and toppings, but the way you combine specific ingredients to make a specific style of pizza is far more complex and more varied.
Every Page is Page One topics provide another approach to creating content in smaller units, and to distributing the content creation responsibilities for greater consistency and efficiency. Happily, Every Page is Page One topics also suit the way readers consume information on the Web.
One of the key characteristics of Every Page is Page One topics is that they naturally tend to conform to a type. You can use structured writing techniques to define the type of an Every Page is Page One topic, and to ensure that it contains the appropriate types of concept, task, and reference material, in the right places, and in the right quantity, either inline or through linking. You can even use task/concept/reference analysis to help figure out what that combination should be.
But when you serve pizza, serve it by the slice, not one layer at a time.