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

Short: good policy, bad metric

We seem to agonize endlessly over how long content should be. Metrics are regularly proposed for the perfect length of a blog post or content marketing piece, and the move towards topic-based writing has tech writers worrying about similar issues. Keeping content short is certainly good policy. No one wants to read more than they have to to accomplish a given goal. So it makes sense to use content length as a metric for content quality, right? Not so much. Short is a great policy, but a lousy metric. Here’s why:   read more

Topics, Pages, Articles, and the Nature of Hypertext

What is the right word to describe a node of a hypertext?

What should we call the basic unit of information that we present to readers? Is it a page, a topic, or an article? (I’m going to take it as read that the answer is no longer “a book”. If you disagree, that’s what the comments are for.)

I raise this now because of Tom Johnson’s latest blog post, DITA’s output does not require separation of tasks from concepts in which he makes the distinction between topics as building blocks and articles as finished output:

One reason so many people mistake the architecture of the source files with the architecture of the output files is because the term “topic” tends to get used for both situations. I prefer to call the output files “articles” rather than topics. An article might consist of several topics. Each of those topics might be of several different types: concept, task, or reference. read more

Why simplicity is more important than functionality in content navigation

Findability is a filtering problem. There is a whole whack of stuff on the Web. To find what you want, you have to filter it. So if you can provide your visitors with a more sophisticated filter, such as a faceted navigation or a taxonomy-based browsing experience, they will have more success finding stuff, right?

Not necessarily, no.

Findability is a Content Problem, not a Search Problem

Findability is a constant theme in content strategy and technical communications, yet it  seems to me that people often treat findability as a problem existing outside the content. Findability is addressed using SEO tactics and by devising sophisticated top-down navigational aids, such as taxonomies and faceted navigation, but it is seldom seen as issue to be addressed in the content itself.

I believe this focus on top-down findability is wrong. Top-down finding aids have their place, but the majority of the focus should be bottom up, and it should start with the content itself. read more

What is your primary media? Paper or the Web?

Which media is your principal design target? Most tech pubs organizations deliver to multiple media, but which one do they design for? Judging by the content I see every day, most organizations are still designing for paper even when they mostly deliver to the Web. If you are delivering primarily to the Web, shouldn’t you be designing primarily for the Web?

Tom Johnson’s latest blog post, Single Sourcing and Redundancy, ask the important question of what to deliver to each media. Do you deliver different content to paper, help, and Web, or do you deliver the same content in each media? read more

Flat Earth Tech Comm

Working with my current client has really reinforced for me how much traditional documentation methods involve flattening reality. The client is dealing with a large body of troubleshooting information, in which there are complex relationships between issues the user experiences, the symptoms that help narrow down the issue, the configurations under which symptoms can occur, and the underlying faults, misunderstandings, or frustrated expectations that cause the issues.

The relationships between these factors are complex, many to many, and multi-dimensional. Any presentation of these relationships on paper, or on a piece of glass standing in for paper, involves flattening them. This flattening is necessitated by the media, which is, literally, flat. It is also a result of the limits of our own ability to visualize and express complex multi-dimensional relationships. Whether it is a result of thought patterns developed by a five-thousand year experience with paper as the media for externalizing and preserving our thoughts, or whether the limit is innate, we flatten as we attempt to understand. read more

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

Desert Island Docs

There is a long-running radio program on the BBC called Desert Island Discs that asks celebrities what recordings they would take with them if they were going to be stranded on a desert island. Today, the question does not make as much practical sense as when it was first broadcast in 1942. As long as the desert island had Wi-Fi, modern castaways would not have to make their choices before they leave, they could just listen to Pandora. (If the island has power for a record player, we can presume it also has Wi-Fi.) 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.

Clicking an Add as Friend button

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.
Image courtesy of Master isolated images /

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