It is easy to set an ideal for technical communication that it should deliver the best solution — the ideal solution — to every problem. Many critiques of Web search as a tool for finding technical solutions focus on the many less than perfect solutions that any search query returns.
How is the user to find the ideal solutions in the midst of so much dreck? Wouldn’t they clearly be better off confining their search to the official product manual?
No, and here’s why:
The manual does not always have the best solution
First, it would be a stretch — an outrageous stretch — to suggest that a stand-alone manual always contains the ideal solutions to every question.
- The limited time and resources available to produce most manuals means that their solutions are not always going to be ideal
- The manufacturer does not always have the ideal solutions to every problem
- The manufacturer cannot even anticipate all the problems
The manufacturer does not always provide the best solution
Second, the manufacturer often does not want to give the ideal solution to the question, since it might cost them revenue if the ideal solution was cheaper or involved someone else’s product.
For example, for a printer manufactures the ideal solution for a customer who has run out of toner is to buy an expensive, new, brand name cartridge. But for the consumer, buying a much cheaper remanufactured cartridge might be the ideal solution.
The customer may want to know if using the remanufactured cartridge is safe. The manufacturer’s advice on this is obviously partisan, so they are more likely to ask other printer users about their experiences with remanufactured cartridges. The consumer cannot always rely on the manufacture to provide the ideal solution to their problem.
Your ideal solution is different from mine
Third, the ideal solution can depend greatly on the user’s circumstances. The solution that is ideal for one may not be ideal for another. No matter how good the manual is, the reader will still have to do a great deal of work to establish that a particular solution is ideal for them.
For example, car manufacturers publish recommended tire pressures and alignment settings for cars. These settings are intended for average drivers in average conditions, and may well be taken as the ideal answers for commuting to work each day.
But those settings are a compromise between a number of factors, including ride, responsiveness, wear, and noise. Drivers using their vehicles for atypical purposes may benefit from different settings.
Drivers who autocross their cars, or simply want a sportier performance, for instance, will generally benefit from higher pressures and different alignment specs. Car enthusiasts endlessly debate pressures and alignment specs for different applications, different models, and different suspensions setups. Finding the ideal pressures and alignment for how you want to drive your car, therefore, is not always as simple as following the manufacturers recommendations.
The best solution is not the optimal solution
The fact that different answers are ideal for different people means that it is harder for each person to find the solution that would be ideal for them. The more variations there are, the more parameters there are to consider when choosing one variation over another, and the more study and thought is required to come up with the best possible solution. This can be expensive.
In fact, making sure that you have the best possible solution can cost a great deal of money. After all, for any given solution, how do you establish that there cannot possibly be an even better solution out there waiting to be found?
Clearly, as to toner example shows, the manufacturers advice is not always the ideal solution.
So when it comes to finding solution, what is the optimal place to stop looking? The longer you keep looking, the more time and money you will spend on the search, and if no better answer turns up, that extra time and money is pure loss. And given that you have solution A, there is no way to anticipate how much it will cost you to find solution B, or to determine if there is in fact a solution B, or to determine if solution B is actually superior to solution A.
Because finding the ideal solution is so expensive — and because it is impossible to project the full cost of finding the ideal solution — readers don’t actually look for the best solution. They look for a good-enough solution that is quick and easy.
This may sound lazy and potentially wasteful, but it may actually be the optimal strategy. Ultimately, there is a huge economic bonus for finishing things. You can’t make money on products that don’t ship. The good-enough solution that is fast and easy lets you get on with your work and finish your project. The good enough solution, in other words, is often the optimal solution.
The optimal solution is to search
Finding the good enough solution fast and easy is why people increasingly turn to the Web rather than to the manual for solutions to their technical problems.
In my recent User’s Advocate column for TechWhirl, Diversity Trumps Ability: Five Consequences for Tech Writers, I wrote about the studies that show that a diverse group of people tend to consistently come up with better solutions to problems than a homogeneous group of experts.
This tendency for diversity to trump ability, I argued, is yet another reason why people prefer to search the Web. But there is more than one way in which diversity trumps ability when it comes to finding information. Not only does diversity produce a better “best” solution, it also helps to turn up “good-enough” solutions faster.
Part of what makes a solution “good-enough” is that it is easy to use. When you pull potential solutions from a more diverse group of people, you increase the chances of finding a solution that is specific to your problem, easy/cheap to implement, and expressed in terms you can understand.
For your solution to be the good-enough solution, it must first be where people look for good-enough solutions.
A good-enough solution for tech comm
What makes solutions “good-enough” is not primarily about how well they are documented, though that obviously helps; it is about how specific they are to your task, your circumstances, your vocabulary, and your background. Often the “good enough” solution is the one that fits with the way that you currently think and work, rather than the one that breaks your existing paradigm or demands new tools.
And this is where things get sticky for tech writers today. The “good enough” solutions for getting content to the Web are the ones that consist mostly of putting books or help systems on web sites. This allows the writers to follow familiar patterns and use familiar tools — or at least tools that work in familiar ways. Indeed, if the choice was between getting content on the Web this way and not getting it there at all, then it was the good-enough solution, at least at first.
Our good-enough may not be good enough any more
The problem is, this approach relies on the supposition that the reader is going to come to the manual or help system and read is exclusively. But because this is not, overall, the best strategy for getting either the ideal solution or the good-enough-fast-and-easy solution, it is not what many of our users do. They cast a much wider net by Googling for the solutions they need. They may find our material, but since it is like dropping into the middle of a book, it is unlikely to meet the standard of good-enough fast and easy.
Our “good enough” solutions may be good enough for us, but they are not good enough for our readers. And that means that they are not good enough for us anymore.