Reading Usable Help
@UsableHelp on Twitter
Gordon R. Meyer
The power of narrative
Steve Denning speaks about storytelling as a powerful tool for communication. He persuasively identifies the narrative form as the basic, and most meaningful, type of communication. In all areas of human knowledge, Denning proposes, storytelling and narrative play pivotal roles. Narrative emerges at the intersection of people and things and time. Storytelling links human activity with purpose, the things we use, and the time scale in which results occur and meaning emerges. Any single one of these -- purpose, activity, and time -- has less impact than the combined result of all three. In addition, stories are easy to follow. They capture the complex and render it intelligible.
Does this stand in contrast to the sterile, voiceless procedures found in most documentation? Task-based instruction is well-intentioned, but by treating each task as a disconnected sub-unit of work, are we doing our customers a disservice? A "comprehensive" Help system can describe exactly how to do everything a product offers, without ever touching on "why" or "when" the procedures might be useful. I think this is a factor in why third-party software manuals are so popular. Books in the "The Missing Manual" series provide almost the same material as a product's Help, but do so with a human voice, and plenty of anecdotes and tales of missteps, purpose, and (heaven forbid) humor. In other words, they provide narrative. And as Denning says, narrative is the way human beings actually manage to understand and interact with the world. Companies can make their documentation as comprehensive as third-party books, but until they drop the soulless corporate voice and valueless treatment of all the features, they'll never supplant their value.