The Big Step Back and the Small Step Back

By | 2013/07/15

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.

9 thoughts on “The Big Step Back and the Small Step Back

  1. David

    Normally you prose is among the clearest there is, but I have to admit that I couldn’t parse this one. I felt that the previous post on the issue explained the situation perfectly well.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Hi David. First, thanks for the complement. Second, sorry this one is not working for you. I’m not sure if its the metaphor or how I expressed it that is the problem. I guess, at minimum, that it shows the value of saying the same thing different ways.

  2. Pamela

    Oh my. I understood your blog perfectly well. But then I have a lot of practice reading your stuff. I thought you explained in the book quite well why you were writing a book.

    I’d still like to see a blog on writing user-focused topics rather than feature-focused topics. I don’t understand why writers become defensive on this point and keep thinking they must not understand what it really means.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment Pamela. I am planning to talk about user-centric vs product-centric topics. The trick is to figure out why people do seem to be so confused, or so resistant.

      I think some of it may be that the advocates of user-centric content often want to avoid any mention of the product at all, which just does not work. The user is aware of the product and its features. They are part of the user’s task landscape and task vocabulary, something I touched on a while back:

  3. Tom Johnson

    Hey Mark, thanks for expanding on your thoughts here. As I understand it, the big step back (or book length content) is necessary when you want to recast the user’s paradigm entirely rather than merely correct it a bit.

    I can see the logic behind that. But then aren’t you admitting a shortcoming of EPPO — that it can only provide small corrections for users? EPPO can’t actually shift someone’s entire paradigm?

    Doesn’t this argument equate size with impact? The longer the work, the larger the possible impact? By that logic, can a poem ever have more impact than a novel?

    Would’t you also be admitting that EPPO topics aren’t interconnected enough to provide extensive instruction (sufficient to change paradigms)?

    I’m not necessarily disagreeing with your decision to write a book instead of create a compilation of articles. But by choosing to write a book, you’re embracing the very form that you’re arguing against. Of course the genres are different, but some may argue that both formats contains information and aren’t as different as you make them out to be. If you’re going to criticize books by writing a book, I think you’ll open yourself up to some criticism — especially from people who write help content in book formats.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment Tom.

      Sure, EPPO has limitations. I don’t believe there are universal solutions to communication problems. There are people who seem to think we should write our grocery lists in DITA. I’m much more inclined to look for the right size solution for each problem.

      There is definitely a role for short-form content, and for long-form content. There is definitely a role for top-down organization and for bottom-up organization. My point with EPPO is that, in tech comm in particular, we are tending to use long form and/or top down where we should be using short-form bottom up.

      One of the things that electronic media and the Web do is they make a bunch of delivery and connectivity problems that existed in the paper world go away. Those problems restricted certain forms of expression by making them too hand to product, distribute, or discover.

      Video is a great example of this. It is now much cheaper to produce, distribute, and discover videos, which means that tech comm can now start using them in more situations. Video would have been the right media for those situations all along, but it was too hard to provide, so we did books instead.

      The same goes for short-form content with bottom-up organization. It is the best form for a wide range of problems, and we now have to means to use it for those problems, where we didn’t before.

      But there is still as role for long-form top-down books as well.

    2. Mark Baker Post author

      Oh, and incidentally, I don’t think the long form is necessarily required for a big step back. The amount of content required is really determined by how much the user has to learn in order to take a new step forward in a new direction. That may be a little or a lot, but is often as lot, as the new direction is generally going to be less along lines that the user is already familiar with.

      On the other hand, sometimes the big Aha! moment is all it takes, the user rearranges their mental furniture a bit and they are off again.

      But one thing that the content that readers consult after a small step back should be doing — though subtly perhaps — is alerting the user to the possibility that a big step back is required.

      Minimalism emphasizes supporting error recognition and recovery, but sometimes the real error has been made way back, and so the error recognition and recovery means helping the user realize that.

      So, EPPO content may not always be what the user needs to take the big step forward after the big step back, but part of its job is to help the user get to the point where they realize they need to make the big step back.

  4. Alex Knappe

    I might want to add, that the strengths of EPPO topics in tech comm, are also its weaknesses when it comes to “storytelling”. And storytelling is what such a book does. It provides you a narrative line you need to follow to reach a certain goal. You could do that with richly linked topics, but this just wouldn’t work in the big picture.
    You need to take the reader by the hand and show him all places of interest along the way to the goal, in order ensure he understands the “why”, that leads to the conclusion of the book.
    This cannot be done with EPPO topics or at least not in a way that is superior to classic book writing.
    It’s really coming down to the old wisdom “the right tool for the right job”.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Alex.

      I agree entirely. Most of the time, people are only willing to take a small step back, and therefore only willing to read a small amount of information before they plunge forward again. EPPO topics are a concession to that behavior, and therefore EPPO topics are the best option most of the time.

      But when it comes to a subject that requires a long sustained narrative that draws together several threads of argument and show the relationship between them, you simply need a longer narrative.

      The trick, of course, is that is is only under certain conditions that people have the patience for such a narrative. This is why one of the key characteristics of a good EPPO topic is to stay on one level, but to point upward to the big picture where applicable. Sometimes that will mean a big picture topic, where the big picture is simple enough. Sometimes it will mean a big picture book, where the big picture requires a book length narrative.

      And I agree, too, that you can’t make that big-picture book out of building block topics. The resort to a book-length narrative is justified by the need to draw together and co-ordinate multiple strings of argument and to weave them together into a coherent narrative. You can’t do that with building-blocks.

      The right tool for the right job.


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