Technical Communications needs to make far greater use of linking than it does today. Here’s why.
The reason I’m finding self-hosted WordPress so complicated is that it asks me to find a theme first, before I even know what I’m looking for. All the “how to choose a theme” websites I find assume I know far more about what I want out of a theme than I do. Most of the language used to describe themes isn’t language I understand (WordPress’s own “search for a theme” is horrible in this respect – how am I supposed to limit down by function if I don’t understand what the words describing those functions mean?)
This is a classic user problem. They are not setting out to learn the product. A 20th century response to Justus’ problem might have been to suggest that she read a good book on WordPress so she would understand all this stuff before she started to do anything, but that is not how things work today. People’s expectations of user experience have galloped far ahead of our ability to deliver. People expect to be able to just do stuff.
This means that Justus expects to just be able to set WordPress up the way she wants it to work. She skips learning WordPress and jumps straight into trying to make it work. Inevitably, she runs into a bunch of terms and concepts that she does not understand.
How could the documentation she is reading be improved to make her experience less painful?
- It could explain everything from scratch. Except, she is looking at websites from many different theme suppliers. They are not all going to have the resources to explain everything from scratch. Nor would it make sense for their business model, since most of their real revenue probably comes from professional site developers who already know this terminology. And, in any case, this would amount to making every site be the textbook on WordPress which Justus could have found and read if she had chosen to. So even if they did explain it this way, chances are Justus would have rejected this in favor of something shorter.
- It could have left out all the confusing terminology and extra options. Except, those options actually matter. They are all there for a reason, and while any one reader might not need all of them, you don’t write for one reader, you write for all of them.
- It could have provided links from all the confusing terms to topics that explained them. The authors would not have to write all those topics themselves. Most of them are common concepts that apply across the WordPress community. Authors could simply link to the best available topic on that subject.
Links, therefore, help the reader to fill in the blanks in their background knowledge so that they can understand the content and get their work done.
Now, you may be thinking, wouldn’t it be better if WordPress were made easier for beginners to use? That is indeed what bin Uzayr is arguing for in his piece. But in the real world, this does not happen very often, because there is usually more money to be made in adding features. Not to mention that simplifying things can often break backward compatibility for existing users, and fixing those problems can be truly complex.
While there are breathtaking examples of the new and simple blowing way the entrenched and complex, that is not the normal way of things. In fact, I would suggest that there is a clear pattern in the history of many products that shows that novices do not start using a product in large numbers until it has become too complex for novices to grasp.
Why is this? The problem for novices is always, how to choose? The fear of making the wrong choice is very strong, so novices will generally flock to the market leading products. Word Press is the market leader in the Web CMS world, so the fear of making the wrong choice is allayed. (How to you think I chose WordPress as a platform for this blog?)
The attractive thing about the market leader is that it has a lot of users and a lot of companies providing support and services and add in products. It is going to be easy to find someone to help if you need help. And because it is a market leader, it is probably not going to disappear over night (this is not nearly so assured as it used to be, but big is still more stable than small). If you choose big, your choice is less likely to become an orphan.
The problem with the market leader is, its product has been around for a while. As it has grown up, people have asked for more and more features. Those features have been added, but, because the original architecture was not designed for them, they may have been added in less than elegant ways. There may be overlap between features, and between built-in features and those provided by third parties. There are therefore a lot of choices you have to make, and a lot of stuff you need to know to make those choices wisely.
And even if you did make one, the simple version would have fewer features and fewer options, and most users are going to want something that is not in the reduced feature set. If not today, they are going to want it tomorrow.
However much users may say they want simplicity, it is very hard to convince them to give up functionality for simplicity. (How many writers shopping for tools ask, can this tool make PDFs that look just like our current template?) To each user, the thing they want may appear pretty simple, but every user wants something slightly different. Complexity is the sum of a thousand simplicities.
Justus asks for just this kind of simplicity,
I just want to be able to tell it that I want this photo as my header, to have mostly static pages plus the blog, to choose my fonts and my colors, and to mirror the blog posts to my other social media sites.
There are probably a hundred small simple Web CMS products that would do these things without all the complexity that WordPress presents. Why didn’t Justus choose one of those instead? She does not say, but probably because none of these systems have the characteristics that make them seem like a safe choice for a novice. They are small, they have few users and few supporters. There’s no one to help. I might not be able to get my content out if they close down or don’t keep up with the features all the cool kids will be using next year.
Making a good choice among many obscure products is very challenging — a problem that Justus ironically runs into within the WordPress ecosystem when she goes looking for themes. The first adopters of highly simple products are often the geeks who are capable of assessing their merits and confident in their ability to support themselves.
Novices, therefore, flock to products at just the point that they have become too complex for novices to use. (Tech Writers are flocking to DITA these days, just as the chorus of criticism is rising about how complex DITA has become. A simplified version of DITA is being created in response. This is not a contradiction. It is the way tech works.)
All this is good news for tech writers, of course. It keeps up the demand for technical assistance in all its forms. But it is also why technical communications needs to make far more use of links. Because people are diving into complex products without making a systematic study of them first, and with and expectation that, as market leaders, they should be simple.
People are diving into the middle, and finding more questions than answers. They need a way to get a quick shot of information on the difficult terms they encounter. The best thing we can do for them is to throw them a link.