Readers Express their Purpose in Terms of Tools and their Features

One of the samples of an EPPO topic that I included in my book was a topic from the WordPress Codex on the subject of Using Themes. One of the key properties of an EPPO topic is that it serves a specific and limited purpose. I identified the purpose of this topic as enabling the reader to use themes on their WordPress site.

One of the reviewers objected that the user’s real purpose was not to use themes, but to style their site. I can understand where the criticism comes from. Those of us who favor task orientation in technical communications are quite sensitive to anything that smells of its opposite: feature orientation. We don’t want people to be writing topics on the File Menu, for instance. We want them to focus on things that the reader is trying to do. read more

Fewer People Read Longer Topics, and that’s Okay

Fewer people read longer topics. But it’s not something to lose sleep over, and certainly not something to shorten topics over.

Tom Johnson has a recent  series of posts on topic length (Does DITA Encourage Authors to Fragment Information into a Million Little Pieces?Do Short Topics Make Information More Findable?, and Why Long Topics Are Better for the User). The discussion around these posts dwells, as all such discussions seem to do, on the question of whether fewer people will read longer posts/topics/articles/etc. read more

The Real Docs Need is Decision Support

One of the most important tools of modern business is the decision support system. Such systems can be complex and even exotic, but at its heart, a decision support system is simply a system that provides people with the information they need to make decisions.

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The question that matters to users is not usually how to press the button, but what will happen if they do press it, and whether they should press it or not. The real task problems users have are usually with decisions, not operations.
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In tech comm, we don’t talk much about decision support. We talk about task support. We frame our jobs as providing the information people need to complete their tasks. Unfortunately, what we often provide by way of task support are simply procedures for operating machines. But, as I have argued before, a task is not a procedure. In many cases, the support people need to complete their tasks is not information on how to operate machines, but information to support their decision making. Its not “how do I push the button,” but “when and why should I push the button and what happens if I do.” read more