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.
Personalized content has been the goal of many in the technical communication and content strategy communities for a long time now. And we encounter personalized content every day. Google “purple left handed widgets” and you will see ads for purple left handed widgets all over the web for months afterward. Visit Amazon and every page you see will push products based on your previous purchases. Visit Facebook …
Well, and there’s the rub, as Mark Zuckerberg is summoned before congress for a good and thorough roasting. Because what Cambridge Analytica did was personalized content, pure and simple, and no one is happy about it.
And suddenly every tech comm and content strategy conference seems to be about getting your content ready for chatbots. Makes sense if you are a conference organizer. Chatbots are sexy and sex sells, even if the definition of sexy is a grey box with a speaker sitting on the counter.
But chatbots are not the future of technical communication. Here’s why:
Chatbots are stupid
No, I don’t mean that they are a stupid idea. I mean they are actually stupid. As in they are not very bright. As Will Knight writes in Tougher Turing Test Exposes Chatbots’ Stupidity in the MIT Technology Review, current AI does barely better than chance in deciphering the ambiguity in a sentence like: “The city councilmen refused the demonstrators a permit because they feared violence.” (Who feared the violence?) Human do this so easily we rarely even notice that the ambiguity exists. AI’s can’t.
In the Top Gear Patagonia Special, the presenters come upon an incomplete bridge and have to construct a ramp to get their cars across. This is a great metaphor for technical communication, and, indeed, communication of all kinds: the incomplete bridge.
Technical communication is often described as a bridge between the expert and the user. But that bridge is always incomplete. The user always has to build the final span that connects the bridge to the bit of ground they are standing on.
This is true for several reasons, the most basic of which is that you have to contextualize any information you receive to your own project in order to act on it confidently and successfully. If the document tells you to push the red button, it is still your job to determine if you are looking at the right device and the right red button, and if your purpose will truly be served by pressing the red button at this time. The document can never entirely ensure that you do not press the wrong button on the wrong device or at the wrong time for the wrong purpose. Only the individual reader can determine those things, and thus only the reader can build the final span of the bridge.
Yesterday I wrapped up work on my new book on Structured Writing and delivered it to the publisher. There will be more work to do, of course, after the pre-publication review process is complete, but in a broad sense, the book is done. That is, the arc of the book is complete.
Good books have an arc. Finding that arc is one of the great joys of long-form writing. Of course, this blog is about short form writing — about Every Page is Page One topics that serve a single discrete purpose for the reader. But in a sense even a book should fit that mold — should serve a single discrete purpose for the reader. The whole should be more than the sum of the parts. There should be an arc, something the book says that is more than an accumulation of details, and that allows the reader to see the details in a new light — and to act differently and, hopefully, more successfully, in that new light.
Human language is extraordinarily economical. We can say an extraordinary amount in very few well chosen words. This economy is essential to its function. Language is what in computer science is called a soft real-time system. That is, you have a limited amount of time in which to convey your meaning. After that, your audience will get bored or go to sleep, or the event you wished to discuss or avoid will have taken place. The night will have come without the fire being built. The deer will have fled without the arrow being loosed from the string.
I’d thought the Content is King debate was over, but I saw it rearing its jester’s head once again recently. Argh!
“Content is King” is a phrase that seems to have come out of content marketing to express the simple idea that content is now the most important form of marketing. Which is actually a rather weird and restricted meaning of the word content, since it was meant to contrast with traditional advertising which is, after all, content.
What I think those who coined the term were really trying to say is that in marketing content that informs now performs better than content that attempts to persuade. This is a direct result of content being easier to get on the Web, which means that readers can get the information they want while avoiding any overt attempt to persuade them.
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.
One of the most enduring and most maligned topic patterns in tech comm and on the Web is the FAQ. Writers and Information Architects frequently regard the FAQ as a sign of poor organization. For best and most consistent access, they argue, information should be in its proper place in the overall site or help system.
If the logic of top-down content organization worked, they would have a point. But the logic of top-down content organization generally only works for those who do the organizing, and then not always, as we can tell from the many sites, manuals, and help systems where any sense of organization peters out as soon as you get any depth into the content.
Hierarchy as a form of content organization is dying. A major milestone — I want to say tombstone — in its demise is the shutdown of the Yahoo directory, which will occur at the end of the year according to an article in Ars Technica, Yahoo killing off Yahoo after 20 years of hierarchical organization. (Actually it seems to be offline already.)
As the article observes, a hierarchical directory made some sense when Yahoo was created:
In the early days of the Web, these categorized, human-curated Web listings were all the rage. Search engines existed, but rapidly became notorious for their poor result quality. On a Web that was substantially smaller than the one we enjoy today, directories were a useful alternative way of finding sites of interest.