Clod Prints in the Snow

February 24th, 2008 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

It’s a XC harrumph. The question is schemiel or schmuck, rube or rowdy, ignoramus or boor?

Number two son and I just returned from cross-country skiing in Franklin Park. As usual, we found many of the carefully cut ski tracks stomped and useless after the boot-wearing villains had done their worst.

Maybe we’re too nice about, but we choose to conclude that people who would intentionally ruin the recreational offerings of others fall into the ignorant or unaware groups, and not the malicious. We figure they are not XC skiers and don’t know that it’s work to lay tracks that make gliding easier and more pleasurable for others. It’s also just nice.

Alternately, of course, destroying hundreds of yards or more of track might indicate:

  • Extreme self-centeredness, as in, “Oh, it might be a little easier for me to walk in this track. I’ll do that.”
  • Stereotypical New England lack of etiquette and breeding, flavored by thoughtlessness.
  • Dull-witted lack of observation, as in not having enough brain power to realize what the tracks are or what purpose they might serve.
  • Brutish malice, intending to inconvenience others for petty amusement.

As a tech writer, I can apply Ockham’s razor to this question. My professional experience has given me much support for the cluelessness rationale.

In my business, that is why most documentation and particularly online help systems are not very helpful. Too many tech writers don’t analyze or understand what’s going on before their eyes.

They don’t think like a user or more accurately the different sets of users of the product. With help, for example, Microsoft is typical and one of the most consistent offenders. It certainly has the human and other resources to provide greate documentation, but does not. Like the XC track trompers, if the writers don’t understand what’s happening and what it means, they can’t explain it in useful terms.

You can see how this doesn’t work best with help systems. When you press the F1 key in Windows or help on a Mac, it’s likely you’re having trouble proceeding and not that you are too stupid to read and interpret the on-screen menu items. Yet, nearly all help systems reveal in great detail what you can read for yourself.

When I was a doc manager and when I construct a help system myself, the catchphrase is “Make me smart fast.” That requires stepping back from expertise in the product and realizing what the likely problems would be at that point. The one, two or three most likely problems need to go into the help system to make it, well, helpful. Anything less is lazy, not terribly bright and pretty disrespectful.

Harrumph to track trompers and harrumph to bad documentation!

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One Response

  1. GoldsteinGoneWild says:

    Great point. Another analogy: This is the problem with teacher training. Many education professors, like tech writers, simply refuse to identify with the user. Rookie teachers want to “become smart, fast” because it is humiliating to learn exclusively by trial and error. Yet so it goes.

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