Chatbots are not the future of Technical Communication

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. read more

The Role of the Manual and the End of Civilization

An interesting article in Popular Science charts the rise and laments the fall of the manual. Instructions Not Included: What the Disappearance of the Common Manual Says About Us, traces the origins of the manual as a form of technical communication, and notes how many products now come with no manual. It draws from this dire fears of human decline.

By dispensing with [manuals], we could, consciously or no, be setting the stage for something few would relish: a society divided.

This is accomplished by a parlor trick in two parts. The first is to build up the civilization changing role of the manual: read more

Successful Patterns are the Best Guide to Information Design

I am very grateful to Jonatan Lundin for a lengthy conversation on the subject of topic patterns because it helped me to crystalize something important about the basis for the principles of EPPO information design and how they are derived.

Approaches based on psychology

Traditionally, theories of information design have been psychologically based. Researchers (usually academics) attempted to form a psychological theory about how we learn and then suggested information design approaches based on those theories. The success of such efforts has been mixed. read more

The Reader’s Path Cannot be Made Straight

The straight path. It is an idea with immense psychological appeal to us. Every valley, Isaiah promises, shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill laid low (Isaiah 40:4). As communicators, we naturally want to lay out a straight path for our readers. But the truth is, we lack the power to make the crooked straight and the rough places plain.

The crooked path and the paradox of sensemaking

A crooked path through a forest.

The reader walks a crooked path through a forest of information.
Simon Carey [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In his landmark book, The Nurnberg Funnel, John Carroll described what he called the paradox of sensemaking, which can be roughly summed up as saying that learners cannot make sense of the learning materials because they don’t correspond to their current mental model, which can only really be changed by experience. No documentation can ever work perfectly, therefore, because it can only make perfect sense to someone who already understands what it is saying. read more

Passive vs. imperative linking

Summary: Writers worry about whether links will distract users. To discuss this concern, we need to begin by distinguishing between imperative links that command the reader to click and passive links that merely make finding ancillary material easier.

Tom Johnson wrote a post recently in which he raised an important question about linking, and referred to an earlier article of mine on the subject. When you refer to another document in a post or article, should you link to it immediately? Tom wrote: read more

The Big Step Back and the Small Step Back

My Book is currently in the technical review stage — meaning that people who I and the publisher respect have been asked to read and comment on the full draft. It is a humbling, daunting, and also energizing experience, and I am deeply grateful to the reviewers for their time, energy, and expertise.

One of the reviewers asked why the book is not itself written as a collection of EPPO topics. It’s a very fair question, and one I have attempted to address before. But I think there is more to be said on the subject, or, at least, another way of saying the same thing — which is often just as valuable. I think of it as the difference between a big step back and a small step back. read more

What is Minimalism?

Ask what minimalism is (in a Tech Comm context), and you are likely to get a recitation of the four principles of minimalism.

Per JoAnn Hackos, the four basic principles of minimalism are

♦ Principle 1: Choose an action-oriented approach
♦ Principle 2: Anchor the tool in the task domain
♦ Principle 3: Support error recognition and recovery
♦ Principle 4: Support reading to do, study, and locate

This is the explanation from the inside. It is equivalent to answering the question, what is a can of peaches, by saying it is a can containing syrup and sliced peaches. What such a definition lacks is the explanation of why you would put something as wonderful as a fresh peach into a can. It is the what but not the why. read more

The Paradox of Help Quality

 Why does help still kind of suck even after so many years?

Tom Johnson asks this poignant question in his post Do We Need a New Approach to Help? Why Are Users So Apathetic Towards Help after 50 Years of Innovation?

Tom provides a great survey of the trends and ideas in help design, starting with John Carroll’s seminal work on minimalism and suggests multiple possible ways forward.

I think there is enormous promise in many of the paths Tom invites us to explore, but at the same time, I am struck by the need to recognize that there is limit to how much help help can be, and a real danger in trying to do too much. read more

How the Web Designs Information

John Carroll, in Nicky Bleiel’s recent interview in Intercom, suggests that there has emerged a theory that the advent of the Web means that information does not need to be designed anymore:

I do think that techniques like crowdsourcing and search have caused, what I think, is a radical position that there is no need to design information anymore because it’s so abundant. We can rely on the crowd and search, and between the two we’re going to be able to generate such wondrous amounts of information. read more