In a recent program on Australian National radio, an environmental scientist, Tony Recsel, criticised two advocates of high-density housing who blamed the community for the resulting increase in traffic congestion and pollution.
Recsel cited their insistence that “the resulting traffic congestion and pollution are just too bad; people should simply not drive when there is congestion!” (Planning Our Suburbs—Sound Policies Or Fads. Sunday 1 Feb 2004.http://www.abc.net.au/rn/science/ockham/stories/s1034626.htm)
His response to this attitude was emphatic. “Planners surely should be more pragmatic. What’s the use of dogmatically basing your planning on what people ought to do, when you know very well that they won’t do it?”
This is a conundrum that faces information developers: the chasm between how we think people should use information and how they do—the “Why DON’T they know. It’s in the user guide” syndrome.
“Learners… don’t seem to appreciate overviews, reviews, and previews, they want to do their work. They come to the learning task with a personal agenda of goals and concerns that can structure their use of training materials.” (John M. Carroll, 1990. The Nurnberg Funnel. Massachusetts: MIT Press, p. 26.)
Candice Harp’s research, published in 1996, is another reality check—and no less intimidating. Her study involved 263 participants who were interviewed about their strategies for learning “all types and brands of office automation software.”
The most useful learning strategy was “experimenting.” Reference manuals came in 9th, third-party books at 13th, and using online Help at 14th. (“Winging It,” Candice Harp,Computerworld 30 (43), pp. 107–109, October 21, 1996)
I am sceptical about survey results but most of us will see OURSELVES in this survey, and in Recsel’s and Carroll’s comments. So often, WE don’t do as we’re supposed to either!
How then do we respond, we, who are up to our armpits in the business of writing?
In a recent project, our team faced this very challenge. My client was commercialising a Web-based application that enabled business teams to create and publish important corporate documents on the Web and in hardcopy.
We knew that our users would be focused on their business tasks, not the software. We looked “pragmatically” at the real-world contexts of users such as the senior executive who signed off on publications or the marketing manager co-ordinating document development as an additional, “administrative” task.
Our documentation solution was not selected on the basis of the information that each type of user needed, though that was certainly important. We needed to meet our users in their performance context and to design our information to match that context.
We considered a number of user contexts and set a simple objective for the user guide—get users to their starting point in the application. After that, users could learn what they needed by exploring, supported if they wished, by targeted online information.
We created a simple checklist for each user type. Checklists had two columns—Task and How? Some checklists had several rows (tasks) but at least one checklist had only one task. All checklists were less than a page and included lots of white space, which we hoped would suggest low cognitive effort.
The How? column provided only essential, get-started guidance. For example, the coordinator’s checklist had a task of Setting up a senior executive for the final review and a How? of Print the reviewer’s checklist and pass to the reviewer.
We included a colored, boxed section above each checklist. The boxed section explained the two types of Help: “form Help” accessed from a Help icon and mini-Help text beside specific fields. All Help delivered make-sense-in-the-business-context information.
Yes, we recognised that users who were focused on “doing” would be likely to skip the “helpful” information at the top of the page, just as they skip instructions at the top of online and hardcopy forms… so we planned a tipping strategy.
We included an unsettler heading for the top-of-page section—Will you know what to do? We made the two headings in the section the first layer of information—Watch for the Help icon