Confusing Analytic and Synthetic Truths in Defining Topic Types

Ray Gallon’s recent post, Let’s Break a Tech Comm Rule proposes that we should rethink the idea of separating tasks from concepts. Hooray! It’s no secret that I’m no fan of this separation.

Reading Ray’s post, also sparks this thought. It is a common and sometimes catastrophic error to confuse an analytic truth with a synthetic truth. That is, it is an error to confuse a truth about how to analyse something into its parts with a truth about how that thing should be organized and presented to users. read more

Why EPPO and the Web are the Right Fit for Tech Comm

While most of tech comm has moved to digital media — either to the web or to the product media — tech comm information design practices have been far slower to change. A large part of the tech comm world is still writing and delivering books, even if they deliver them as PDF or burst them into hierarchically  linked help topics. This is a carry over from the design constraints of the paper world, and we need to move away from it.

Two of the key factors determining publishing strategy are the size and the time-frame of the content. Content may be large or small, and it may be topical (of immediate short term interest) or durable (of long term interest). In the paper world, different publishing and binding models fit different quadrants: read more

Topic size: Finding the narrative minim

The first question we need to address in seeking a theory of topic-based information design is the perennial “how big is a topic”. Whether we are talking about the reusable blocks that DITA calls topics, or about Every Page is Page One topics that are sized for a reader, the question of size is always the first one that people ask.

In the discussion of Keith Schengili-Roberts’ blog post, What Size Should a DITA Topic Be? (the discussion is on a closed LinkedIn community, DITA Metrics, not the blog itself), Katriel Reichman suggested “one idea, one topic”. Another approach that I have used in the past is to say that a topic supports one task. read more

We Must Develop Topic-Based Information Design

There is a lot of talk in tech comm today about topic-based writing, but very little about topic-based information design. This is a problem, because, in the age of the Web, and particularly of the mobile Web, topic-based information design is essential.

Topic-based writing is often perceived (and practiced) as nothing more than writing in small, potentially reusable, chunks. As such, it says nothing about what kind of information design those chunks will be assembled to create. Often, such topics are assembled to create books, or, sadly, the monstrosities I have dubbed Frankenbooks.  Seldom are they used to create something that a reader would encounter as a usable topic — that is, a sufficient treatment of a single subject of interest. read more

Everything Else is not a Concept

In any system that attempts to classify the whole of something, there is usually a category that essentially constitutes “everything else”. In the terrible troika of task, concept, and reference, that role belongs to “concept”.  In Tom Johnson’s shapes of help graphic, which have quoted before, and repeat here, task has the shape of a procedure, reference the shape of a table, and concept the shape of plain text.

Tom Johnson's "Shapes of Help" graphic.

Tom Johnson’s “Shapes of Help” graphic.

Concept, then, stands for the plain, the generic, the featureless and structure-less. read more

The Tyranny of the Terrible Troika: Rethinking Concept, Task, and Reference

Tom Johnson’s blog post Unconscious Meaning Suggested from the Structure and Shape of Help, includes a graphic showing three shapes of content:

Tom Johnson's "Shapes of Help" graphic. Tom Johnson’s “Shapes of Help” graphic.

These three shapes are meant to represent the DITA topic triad of concept, task, and reference. I didn’t get it. As I said in a comment on Tom’s blog, I was trying to match the shapes to something more specific. It was odd that I didn’t recognize them as concept, task, and reference, I said, because I have be “battling the tyranny of the terrible troika” for the last few years. Tom asked what I meant by “the tyranny of the terrible troika”; this is my answer. read more

Too Big to Browse; Too Small to Search

Findability continues to be the bete noire of technical communication. This may be a parallax error, but it seems that findability is more of a problem in technical communication than in other fields. The reason, I suspect, is that many technical documentation suites are too big to browse but too small to search.

I have commented before on the somewhat counter-intuitive phenomenon that on the Web it is easier to find a needle in a haystack (The Best Place to Find a Needle is a Haystack). This may be counterintuitive, but it is easy enough to explain: search (if it is any more sophisticated than simple string matching) is essentially a statistical analysis function. A search engine works by discovering a statistical correlation between a search string and a set of resources in its index. read more