The straight path. It is an idea with immense psychological appeal to us. Every valley, Isaiah promises, shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill laid low (Isaiah 40:4). As communicators, we naturally want to lay out a straight path for our readers. But the truth is, we lack the power to make the crooked straight and the rough places plain.
The crooked path and the paradox of sensemakingIn his landmark book, The Nurnberg Funnel, John Carroll described what he called the paradox of sensemaking, which can be roughly summed up as saying that learners cannot make sense of the learning materials because they don’t correspond to their current mental model, which can only really be changed by experience. No documentation can ever work perfectly, therefore, because it can only make perfect sense to someone who already understands what it is saying.
In proposing minimalism, Carroll was not saying that it was a perfect system, only that it got in the learner’s way somewhat less than the systematic instruction common at the time. (Unfortunately, Minimalism has become a system in its own right, with the paradox of sensemaking apparently forgotten.)
The paradox of sensemaking tells us that no matter what we do, readers will still thrash, will go off on tangents, and will make mistakes. This is not a failure of instruction, it is how learning works. No matter how attentive a parent you are, your kid cannot learn to walk without falling down and hurting themselves a bunch of times. It is an inherent part of the process. A kid who never falls never runs.
The temptation to straighten the path
Carroll named his book for the legend of the funnel of Nurnberg, which was able to pour knowledge directly into someone’s head. Carroll’s point was, there is no Nurnberg funnel. What I greatly fear these days is that people who refuse to accept that there is no Nurnberg funnel will create documentation sets that are much worse, rather than better, because they are designed to prevent the reader from every straying or stumbling.
Every Page is Page One is about admitting that every reader will take their own course through a combination of content, experimentation, and asking for help, as they work through the process of resetting their mental model. It won’t always seem like the best or straightest course to someone who already has the new mental model – we seem to have an almost limitless capacity to forget how hard it was to learn something once the light bulb has gone off in our own heads.
But that course is driven by the gap between the reader’s current knowledge and the new mental model they need to attain. By making sure that every topic begins by establishing its context, and that it links richly along lines of subject affinity, an Every Page is Page One topic set enables the reader to travel that crooked path more quickly. It does not try to straighten it out, and it recognizes that ever reader’s crooked path may be different. It is an accommodation to the paradox of sensemaking, not an attempt to solve it.
This means we are never going to calibrate the perfect organization or the perfect set of relationships. I believe this is the wrong focus. Our real focus should be on making sure that the individual pages work really well for what they do – something I wrote about in my recent column on TechWhirl: http://techwhirl.com/users-advocate-write-one-good-page/.
Even for those with the right model, the path is not always straight
Of course, not every reader is struggling to make sense of the product. Some are experienced users, and some have the right mental model going in. For them, it is simply a matter of needing data, of needing a reference.
Even a procedure can be reference material, if the reader has the right mental model. Carroll found that people with the wrong mental model could not follow procedures, but if you have the right mental model, you may still need to know which order to press the buttons in. The difference between having the right mental model and having the wrong one is that when you have the right model, you have confidence in the instructions and in your interpretation of them.
For people with the right mental model who are simply in need of reference material, the path can be made fairly straight. Perhaps not entirely straight — having the right mental model for the product and the task you are performing with it is not the same thing as having the same mental model of content organization as the author devised. People wanting reference material will still search for it, and, search and search skills being what they are, will often miss slightly, and will need to find a path from where they are to where they need to be. There is randomness in that path too, and we should do all we can to accommodate the random ways in which people stumble the last mile to the reference information they need.
Confidence in the wrong model makes paths particularly crooked
But being confident in your mental model is not the same thing as actually having the correct mental model. While the path is somewhat straighter for the person who actually has the right model, it can be even more crooked for the person who doesn’t but is confident that they do. They will often go barking far up the wrong tree, and waste much invective on the people who designed the product and wrote the documentation, before the light goes off and they realize they have been thinking about it all wrong. They will have walked a long and crooked wrong path by that point and may walk another long and crooked path before they finally get to where they need to be.
Trying to force such people down a single path will not work. It will not help them get to the point of realizing their error, nor help them find their way back. Helping them to wander effectively, on the other hand, may help them reach the point of disillusionment faster, and help them chart a faster course back.
If we cannot create a straight path for the reader, therefore, we should focus on helping them walk their own crooked path most productively. That means two things principally:
1. Make sure that every topic you create does the job it is supposed to do and does it well. If we can’t make the way straight, we can at least make sure the stepping stones don’t wobble. We have no idea of where the reader may come from or where they may be going, so create every page as if it were page one.
2. Provide for rich local navigation. The reader is following a crooked path, so we don’t know what direction they will want to go next. We must therefore provide many options. But even a crooked path is a path. Their next destination is not some random leap. Rather they will follow the scent of the information they need, the same scent that brought them to the current topic. They are interested in subjects that are related in some way to the current topic. They need subject-local navigation, not links to the top of the documentation set.
Want to talk about how to create an information set that helps the reader chart their own course? Get in touch. Let’s chat.