Reading Usable Help
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Gordon R. Meyer
Can't see the forest for the trees
Writing in Class Struggle (subscription required) MIT Technology Review columnist Simson Garfinkel examines the unintended negative impact that technology has in higher education classrooms and campuses. Near the end of the article he writes:
"You can't learn sophisticated software by osmosis -- or even by repeated use. Even the kids who appear to acquire computer skills with effortless ease need formal instruction to master the sophisticated applications. Graphics, presentations, and data management are the lifeblood of the information economy: universities, and even grade schools, need to teach their students how to use the advanced features of these applications."
It's true that product documentation rarely focuses on the "big picture" of getting the most out of a product. But even beyond that, learning how to best integrate, utilize, and exploit a computer is today only learned by experience. Task-based documentation is important, but weaving the low-level tasks that documentation provides into useful strategies is often left as an exercise for the reader. One customer recently told me that "learning to use a computer by using the documentation is like learning to drive by reading about the transmission, brakes, and internal combustion engine."