Experts read more than novices

By | 2018/10/07

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.

4 thoughts on “Experts read more than novices

  1. Bruce Officer

    The problem I’d face with presenting information in discrete independent chunks is that it still has to be made available to the large percentage of users who have no web access. Sometimes the equipment has a screen with sufficiently high resolution to present the information, but sometimes it doesn’t. I have to make the same information available in printed form, so that means compiling it into one, two or three (at most) printed manuals / guides, and those need titles that guide the reader to the right one so we’re back to titles like Getting Started, Installation Manual, Operator Manual, User Manual, etc. How does the Every Page is Page One concept apply when you cannot leave behind paper-only users?

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Bruce

      I would question “large percentage of users who have no web access”. Unless you are required to check your cell phone at the door or work in the wilderness out of cell range, very few people today have no web access. There definitely are secure environments were outside web access (including on your phone) is restricted. Most of those, however, also require users to be trained and certified on the equipment they are using, which greatly reduces the number of times they need access to documentation. They are also usually trained in how to use the documentation and when they are required to use it. This creates a very different information-finding environment compared to the open uncertified environment in which most of us work and in which we are more or less on our own when it comes both to identifying when we need additional information and when it comes to finding it.

      That said, while Every Page is Page One information design clearly works best in online media, particularly the web, it also has a long history on paper. Encyclopedias, cookbooks, reference works, etc. are all Every Page is Page One works.

      And printing information on paper does not change the basic facts about the rate at which novices can absorb information, and therefore the way they actually behave when they are learning. Almost all of John Carroll’s experiments involved the use of paper documentation (one involved the use of an early online help system) and the user behavior he observed was largely with paper documents designed as systematic guides. But people did not use them as guides. They used them randomly and sporadically to answer individual goal driven questions, usually after they had already tried to figure something else for themselves and got stuck. (Thus Minimalism’s emphasis on supporting error recovery.)

      One of the most successful of Carroll’s experiments involved the creation of printed quick reference cards, one for each task, with no specified or assumed order to them (in other words, EPPO topics printed on paper). One of the findings from this experiment was that, at the end of the experiment, every subject’s pile of cards was in a different order.

      The “guide” model is broken because it does not match the way people learn. Whether you deliver on paper or online does not change this. Delivering online allows you to provide additional tools to help the reader navigate a collection of Every Page is Page One topics, but if you can’t make them available online, making them available on paper, not making guides on paper, is the next best thing.

      This is not to say that there is no role at all for book length narrative content (after all, the book that describes EPPO is just such a long narrative work), but they only work for certain subjects and certain forms of learning, and our responsibility as technical communicators is to provide content in the format that best supports the kind of information-finding behavior our users actually exhibit while using our products. There is ample evidence that changing our designs does not change information-finding behavior (which is constrained by factors beyond our control) so we need to adapt our designs to the information-finding behavior that actually occurs. (And thus my message is not, always do EPPO no matter what, but, always create an information design that matches the actual information-finding behaviour of your readers for the task you are supporting. If that is a guide, by all means write a guide, but it is usually not a guide.)

      1. Bruce Officer

        The points about how people learn are what I’ll take away from this post. I was just struggling a bit about how to apply them in a factory environment where the equipment might not have a user interface capable of displaying help, and even if it does then it may be stuck behind a strict factory firewall that will block it from accessing the internet. Ordinary workers may be discouraged, if not outright forbidden, from using their own devices. But you still make a good few points that I find helpful and interesting. The idea of task-oriented help cards is one. Better integration with training materials is another. And as for every page is page one, your analogy with cook books and encyclopedias will make me think about this afresh.


  2. Bruce Officer

    Please delete this duplicate reply


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