Using Analogies to Promote Understanding
When John Carroll’s team (doing their original minimalism research) developed the early “help” topics for IBM’s DisplayWriter, they used an analogy to assist the new users learning the word-processing system. Most of us with 20 to 30 years of experience recognize the analogy immediately. Carroll related word processing to using a typewriter. Users learned that the blank screen was like a blank piece of paper, without needing margins and tabs.
As writers, we use analogies to help readers relate something they already know to something new. I frequently explain that writing standalone topics is much like writing help topics that are viewed independently of one another. Writers with help experience seem more likely to adjust to the requirements of writing standalone topics. Their prior knowledge and experience helps them adjust to the new task.
Analogies need not be limited to explaining technical content in documentation. They also prove useful in helping senior management understand why we should be managing our content more effectively. Analogies help us build a business case for content management that is compelling to managers with backgrounds in engineering, product life cycle management, finance, and inventory control.
Analogies are equally useful when applied to the new writing processes that we hope to adopt in our organizations, especially when we ask writers to move from authoring books to authoring topics. Analogies enable us to build useful points of comparison from the current to the future state. They also help us, as managers, to understand more thoroughly the context in which we urge new behaviors.
In this column, I explore how to use analogies to benefit our organizations as well as our readers.
In an article referenced in Working Knowledge (November 2007), the newsletter of the Harvard Business School, Giovanni Gavetti and Massimo Warglien report on their study of analogy in strategic decision-making. They note that recognition lies at the heart of analogy. “Recognition refers to a class of cognitive processes through which a problem is interpreted associatively in terms of something that has been experienced in the past.”
Not only can recognition benefit each of us individually as we try to learn new ideas or new ways of working, they can benefit group processes and decision-making. Through analogy we begin with shared experiences on which the group builds. The shared experiences lead to extensions of the analogy to better analyze the required decisions. These extensions then lead the group to a more insightful understanding of the future state. Or, they can, under an intense pressure to conform, deteriorate into groupthink—leading everyone to agree to the wrong strategy.
Using analogy in making a business case for content management
In making the business case for content management and topic-based authoring for senior management, I recommend that you use an analogy to inventory control. When Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) first introduced component-level content management, they referenced an analogy to inventory control. They argued that each component of content, including individual paragraphs, list items, and notes, could be handled as a part in inventory. Each component should have a unique identifier that would facilitate its reuse in any context, just as each part in inventory might be used in any number of products. The key to efficiency in this analogy required storing each part only once and using it to build assemblies. The fewer parts in inventory, the more efficient the manufacturing process and the lower the costs. For example, one manufacturer learned that manufacturing costs could be significantly reduced if each of the development teams incorporated the same power supply into their designs.
I use the inventory analogy to describe creating topics or subtopic components such as warnings just once, storing them in a well-labeled and –organized repository, and using them in multiple assemblies. I reiterate that the goal is not simply “reuse” but having the smallest number of inventory items to manage. The more assemblies (documents or websites or help systems) that we can build from the smallest number of components, the more efficient we become.
This analogy to inventory control has been quite persuasive for an audience of engineers and business managers. They identify with the base analogy, add their own experience to build a deeper comparison, and recognize in our world of technical publishing their own world of manufacturing efficiency.
In their white paper, “Professionally Manage Your Content: Going Beyond Traditional Content Management,” writers at Inmedius build a useful analogy between authoring in topics and creating a motion picture. Films are not shot from beginning to end; they are built on the “cutting room floor.” Individual scenes, even parts of scenes, are developed during the course of production. Each snippet only appears in context when the editors start to work. Like information architects, they make the producer’s and director’s vision real by stringing the parts together after the filming is complete.
“This new paradigm is being facilitated by new technical documentation standards such as S1000D and DITA. The essential element of both of these standards is the ability to author a portion of a document, and not necessarily from beginning to end, but in any particular order. The old concept of creating a document from beginning to end, as a painter paints a canvas, has been shattered. The new paradigm of creating technical documentation uses a technique closer to the creation of a movie film. Films are created by aggregating sometimes disparate scenes (content) into a coherent order for the viewer. An S1000D