If you let one of your houseplants completely dry out and then try to bring it back to life by dumping a large amount of water in the pot, you will end up with water all over the floor. Dry soil cannot absorb moisture quickly so the water you pour in will run through the soil, out the hole in the bottom of the pot, into the saucer the pot is resting on, over the sides, and onto the floor. Damp soil can absorb moisture far more quickly that dry soil. Readers are like that too. Experts can absorb much more information much faster than novices. Thus experts read far more than novices do.
Unfortunately, this is not generally how we create content for them. In a recent post, What is a quickstart to you?, Sarah Maddox looks at the different definitions that people have of the document types “Quick Start Guide” and “Getting Started Guide”. Maddox suggests this way of differentiating between the two:
- A quickstart guide is for domain experts.
- A getting-started guide is for domain newbies.
The domain expert, Maddox argues, already understands the task and the tools and just needs some basic information about setup and configuration, whereas the newbie requires:
- Detailed descriptions of the concepts relevant to the domain and the product.
- A detailed walkthrough of a complex use case.
- Explanations of why they’re performing each step.
This is a reasonable distinction on the face of it. The newbie has a greater information deficit than the expert, so it follows that the newbie should be provided with more information than the expert.
The problem is that the newbie will not actually read all this extensive information. This is well known, and John Carroll demonstrated it amply in the experiments that he records in The Nurnberg Funnel. Rather than sitting down to read to remedy their extensive information deficit, new users will dive it to the problem trying to complete a specific goal and will only look at instructions when they get stuck. Even then, they will not use the instructions systematically, but will dip in briefly and execute the first thing they see that looks like something they recognize as a coherent instruction, even if it is nothing of the kind.
This behavior Carroll ascribed to what he called “the paradox of sensemaking”. In essence, people did not have the experience and the mental model to grasp what the large volume of content was saying to them. Like dry soil, they have no capacity to absorb anything. They can only take up small snippets of information at a time, and it generally takes some experience that cracks open their preconceptions about how things work to open them up to receiving the information, let alone to instill in them the patience to read it in the first place.
Novices, in other words, can only take up information slowly. Experts can take up information rapidly because they have the experience to understand it and the mental models to accommodate it. Based on this observation about the relative capacities of novices and experts, we would be forced to come to the opposite conclusion, that the novices need brief information, since that is all they can absorb, whereas experts should be provided with extensive documentation because they alone can absorb and take advantage of it.
Can we resolve this paradox?
Part of the answer is to be found in the word common to both the information types that Maddox describes, the word “guide”. The word “guide” implies that the person writing the “guide” is taking charge of the learning experience, that they are dictating what will be learned, in what order, at what pace, and by what means.
If you have ever been on vacation with a tour guide, you know what that experience is like. Thanks to the guide’s experience and contacts, you move through the major tourist sites of your destination very efficiently. You never get lost. You never worry about parking or admissions or research. It is decided and provided for you by the tour guide. And if your aim is to tick as many sites off your bucket list as possible in as short a time as possible, it is a great way to get that job done.
On the other hand, if you decide to wander around on your own and explore at your own pace, you will probably have a much more relaxed time and form much more vivid memories. You may not see all the official tourist sites, but you might have a conversation with the owner of a small out-of-the way cafe in a fascinating building in a less travelled part of town that you remember far longer and with far greater pleasure than your ten second glance of the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel as your guide hustles you on from place to place. Guided tours, for the most part, are simply not the best way to form lasting memories.
So perhaps the way out of the paradox of long guides for novices who can’t absorb them or short guides for experts who alone are capable of reading long ones, is to jettison the idea of the guide altogether.
This, certainly, is what Carroll recommended as a response to the paradox of sense making: create a collection of discrete information modules that are designed to be read in any order. Some of those modules will doubtless be read earlier in the average user’s engagement with the product, and some doubtless will be read later. But no two readers will, over the course of their engagement with the product, read all of them in the same order. Novices will probably read fewer of them with less frequency, because that is all they have the capacity to absorb. Users growing in expertise will read more of them faster because they have gained the experience and mental models necessary to absorb them. True masters will read fewer because they will have already have absorbed all they need.
Dry plants need to be watered slowly. (Dehydrated and starved prisoners, similarly, have to be fed and hydrated slowly.) Novices, no matter how great their information deficit, have to take in information slowly. Starting them off with a big thick guide stuffed with all the things we think they need to know will only give them indigestion. (Though, knowing this, most will not attempt to read it.)
The problem, then, is not to distinguish between the needs of novices and the needs of experts, but to deal with the inherent problems with the concept of guide. Debating which kind of guide to give which audience is beside the point when it is the guide format itself which is the problem. Novices and experts need to drink from the same well of knowledge, but each has to be allowed to drink at the pace their systems can handle.
The way you do that is with an Every Page is Page One approach to information design.