Reading Usable Help
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Gordon R. Meyer
Product complexity prevents simple instructions?
A posting at InfoDesign says that the International Institute for Information Design is hosting a forum on "Manuals for Global Use." In the call for papers, the group writes:
"The increasing complexity and variety [of technical products] makes them more difficult to use effectively. Pictorial and textual instructions, whether on paper or on screen, [...] attempt to counteract this trend."
While the focus of the session will be on cultural differences and pitfalls, the description brings up two of my favorite topics -- product complexity and simplified instructions. Resolving these opposing forces is exactly what a good instructional designer struggles with on a daily basis.
When a product is complicated, producing complex documentation is easy -- just tick off the steps and tell people exactly what they need to do. Describe everything in full detail, break every step down to its smallest unit, and sprinkle plenty of warnings and notes throughout. Everyone expects a complicated product to have a long set of instructions, so don't sweat the word count either. Turn it in, and cash your check. Life as a tech writer is good.
But designing easy-to-use documentation that rises above the complexity of the product is a real challenge. If you're not careful, a poorly organized or overly-detailed document will just reinforce how hard a product is to use -- a disservice to everyone. And ultimately it reinforces the idea that technical documentation is not very useful.