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

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

On Being Misconstrued

If you write, you will sometimes be misconstrued. If you read, you will sometimes misconstrue what you read. These things are part of the human condition.

If you speak, you will often be misconstrued, and if you listen you will often misconstrue. These things are even more certain. But the beauty of conversation is that you can rapidly realize the you have misconstrued or been misconstrued and correct or seek correction until you and your interlocutor arrive at a common understanding.

It is not that simple when you write. I was misconstrued recently, by Joe Pairman, in an article in the CIDM e-newsletter. Based on his reading of several post in this blog and other writings, Joe accused me of misunderstanding minimalism in three ways. (The substance of what he has to say is worth reading, despite it being inspired by a misconstruction of my opinions.) read more

The Web Does Minimalism

It struck me today that the Web does Minimalism. Not only does it do it, it does it naturally, and it does it well. Consider:

Here’s a common listing of the principle tenants of minimalism (borrowed from http://www.ryerson.ca/~ipederse/Minimalism.htm via Google):

  • Take An Action-Oriented Approach
  • Aim for Guided Exploration
  • Position the Documentation in the Task Domain
  • Support Error Recognition and Recovery
  • Design For Non-linear Reading
  • Embrace the Motto: Less Is more
  • read more