Not Getting Chopped: Measuring Mystery Ingredients for Success
What can you make with astronaut ice cream, marshmallow-filled moon pies, mezzelune (half-moon shaped ravioli), and Blue Moon beer? If this sounds like ingredients on an episode of Chopped, you’d be mostly right. My family puts on our own version of the competition from time to time, and these were the ingredients for the appetizer course in our recent Memorial Day, 2019 event.
The most successful appetizer, according to our judges, was a sort of quiche that completely transformed the ingredients and tasted a little like French Onion soup. This was not the dish I made. I wouldn’t even know how to go about making such a dish because what I realized during this year’s Chopped competition, despite having won in the past, is that I lack basic knowledge about the appropriate measurements and proportions to use so that dishes rise, set up, and don’t suck all the moisture out of your mouth.
During the competition, I found myself comparing my holiday activity to my career, and I decided that technical communication is a little bit like preparing a meal from a box of mystery ingredients. The premise of Chopped is to take ingredients you may or may not be familiar with and transform them into a cohesive course that your judges will find palatable. Similarly, the premise of technical communication is to take content you may or may not be familiar with and transform it into a cohesive presentation — be it a topic, book, help system, webpage, etc. — that your users will find helpful.
Whether you are assembling a Michelin-star winning dish or assembling a technical manual, you cannot even begin to think about the presentation of the end product until you first start with an understanding of your source materials — your ingredients.
While in a Chopped situation, you have to take the time to understand the random assortment of foods you’ve been given. This means, at the very least, tasting what you’ve been given. Is the ingredient sweet or is it salty? What other ingredients are also sweet or salty? What are the textures like? What color are the ingredients? How will these ingredients look once cooked on a plate? In one basket, I encountered a parsnip. I had never seen a parsnip before in my life, so I needed to find out as much as I could about parsnips short of looking them up on the internet. I started with the color and shape. Parsnips are long and white. They look somewhat like carrots. They smell somewhat like carrots. When I cut off a small piece to taste, I discovered they taste somewhat like carrots. I know some things about cooking carrots. Now I at least have a starting point for this ingredient.
In technical communication, you have to do the same thing: “taste” your source material. What kinds of information do you have? Is it procedural? Is it conceptual? Is it something that a user might not need to know all the time but instead could reference later? How much content do you have of each type of information? What might be lacking on that final “plate” that you’ll need to prepare additions to counteract? The advantage we have in technical communication over a timed cooking competition, however, is that if we don’t understand our source material, we can turn to resources around us to get that understanding. This might be as simple as asking another individual working on the same end product or even conducting a basic internet search for some starting familiarity. This is a process after all, and we don’t have to have the perfect product in mind just yet.
Part of understanding the source material you begin with means understanding what your judges will and won’t like from those starting ingredients. In our dessert round, I had to work with poppy seeds, zucchini, grapefruit, and corn on the cob. Most people have had a poppy seed cake or muffin, and so this might be the easiest and most obvious solution for how to use this ingredient; however, one of my judges has, on multiple occasions, described poppy seed cake as “dirt cake.” The obvious and easiest solution for what to do with this ingredient was no longer something I could go forward with if I wanted to have a chance at giving him something he would want.
As technical communicators, we can’t just keep serving up tomes of information simply because it’s easiest for us and we know how to do it. If our users don’t want to read and expect quick and easy access to the one nugget of information they need, we can’t expect great scores if we don’t cater to their preferences. We have to design content that meets our users’ needs and expectations.
So how do we make sense of these often-disparate ingredients and a diverse range of user wants? It comes down to vision. We need to create a plan based on our preliminary understandings.
When I am cooking, my plan is often a recipe, but in a competition like Chopped, I have to instead rely on what I know how to do. Because I tend to follow recipes or stick to staples that I know how to prepare or at least know how to take comfortable risks with, I am limited in the range of possible plans I can follow. In the case of the parsnip, this sort of sweet-tasting carrot, I knew to prepare it like a carrot, but simply peeling the parsnip and steaming it isn’t going to win me any points because I’m just doing the same old thing I would have done if I’d actually had carrots to begin with. This is where being familiar with more recipes and techniques can give you an advantage. It’s easier to adapt one starting preparation into something new and give the judges something they might not have had before. I knew that parsnips were root vegetables and I like mashed potatoes, so while I began by preparing my parsnip as I would a carrot, I was able to adapt my plan to create a parsnip mash and create a vision for a savory entrée that I might see in a restaurant.
In many ways, creating the vision in technical communication is easier than cooking. User analysis tells you exactly what they expect to see, but you have more users to deal with than a Chopped competitor has judges. In taking the user’s wants and needs into consideration, you can return to that source material and look at what the material lends itself to in the first place. How should it look? Where should users interact with it? Familiarizing yourself with multiple presentations and platforms is one of the best things you can do to strengthen your vision. Knowing the different ways users access information and interact with it allows you to adapt what they already know how to do and maximize it for your content, rather than simply doing what you have always done. Adaptability is one of the best qualities you can show your users because it shows them that you have considered what they want, what competition exists, and what you’ve already done, and you have created something new for them.
However, having a vision in mind doesn’t make the final presentation magically come to fruition. You still have to prepare the ingredients in the correct proportions and over the correct amount of time at the correct temperature in order to achieve that desired output. Vision is nothing if it does not meet the constraints of your measurements. While my judges wanted to taste more the required ingredients, I am still obligated by the rules of baking science to include specific proportions of other ingredients in order to hold my food together. I still have to blend my ingredients together well so that there is an even consistency of textures and flavors across each bite of the final dish. Furthermore, in Chopped, rounds are timed. While my family doesn’t hold strict timing requirements, they still don’t want to wait for hours to try one dish after they’ve eaten all the others. Thus, in the dessert round, I had to abandon my initial vision of a grapefruit flavored merengue to sit atop a poppyseed graham cracker crumble crust with a zucchini-apple cobbler because a merengue takes many hours to bake and set properly. Time as a measurement matters just as much as the proportions of the ingredients themselves.
Similarly, as much as users might like our products and documentation to be finished instantaneously at the very moment they think to need it, we, too, are bound by the rules of our organizations and the other measurements we choose to take. We have to be aware of consistency across an organization because that’s part of our brand and identity. Without it, how do our users know what truly sets us apart from the competition? Beyond simply being consistent, we have an obligation to be accurate. Misinformation can, at best, cause confusion and, depending on the product the documentation goes with, at worst actual physical harm to the product or user. In achieving our vision, these are measurements we constantly take and adjust. Is it better to produce a lot of content at lower quality or a little content at high quality? And how long does it take to produce the content? Productivity and efficiency certainly matter but determining how much they matter is all part of the process in producing what our users want.
Measuring in both cooking and technical communication is a careful balancing act that must keep in mind your end goal: produce a quality product in a reasonable amount of time that users actually want to interact with. And to be honest, this isn’t always an easy task. Measuring requires that you keep all burners firing, especially while you consider:
- You get what you measure. If you choose to focus on one indicator, but not another, you may only be getting half the picture.
- You need to measure more than one thing. Our success is dictated by a myriad of interconnected indicators that need one another to create a successful final product.
- You need to do something with what you measure. If you measure something but fail to act on it, the entire measurement is pointless.
- Just because you can measure something doesn’t mean that you should. We need to be aware of those distracting and non-essential indicators that won’t end up having an impact on the final product.
- Sometimes, not only is it hard to do something with what you measure, but some things themselves may be hard to measure in the first place.
Measuring the right things during the process to ensure we get the right output at the end is something that many technical communication managers struggle with. That’s why the theme of this year’s Best Practices conference is The Measure of Success. We have invited Douglas Hubbard, author of the book How to Measure Anything, to set the stage for two and a half days of measurement tips and tricks. I hope to see you there, and I promise to leave the catering to the professionals.