Re: Fun Questions for Professionals!

Subject: Re: Fun Questions for Professionals!
From: "Tim Altom" <taltom -at- simplywritten -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 30 Oct 2000 11:08:12 -0500

Good grief! This is a whole program in one email! There are practitioners of
many years' standing who have never asked these questions. Good show.

In general, what's missing in all of your questions is the most basic
information of all...the user profile. Without that, you're always shooting
off into the dark.

For example, I sometimes write for audiences that are deeply familiar with
database queries and other research tools. These people have little patience
for long scrolling pages. They prefer a "note card" approach, as do I. But I
also write for newbies, too, and they need long scrolling pages that can be
easily navigated. There is no "agree or disagree". There is only "what does
the user need?"

> 3.) Please comment on the information listed below.
> linear hardcopy - great
> linear online - great
> nonlinear hardcopy - bad (hypothetical; 5X8 index cards)
> nonlinear online - bad

Again, nothing is totally unsuitable. It's a matter of what the user needs.
And that can only be determined by actually sitting down with some of them.
Ideally, you can test them to find out what benefits them most. It's
laziness, arrogance, or cupidity that argues for "we'll just give them

Be aware, though, that users are often clueless about what they really need.
If you test, you'll probably find that what they THINK they need is nowhere
near what they REALLY USE.
> 4.) What is the solution to fragmentation and disorientation when
> writing online documentation.

This is a technical question. There are lots of ways to deal with the

When I teach technical writing, I often present students with the
"accountability continuum". That's my visual aid for showing them a scheme
in which at one end there is "writer totally accountable...user has no
power", and at the opposite extreme "writer has no power...user is totally
accountable". The first extreme you can see in a lot of Web pages. The
designer figures out where you're most likely to have to go and gives you
the links. This simplifies things for the user, but obviously has the
drawback that it's only for a single class of users and that it takes much
skill to properly determine the link structure in advance.

The second extreme is reached with full-text searches. The writer does not
know nor care how the user will navigate, and the user has full power to do
so. This solution works well for advanced users, but newbies will be left
far behind.

Few systems are so extreme. Most compromise somewhere. And choosing exactly
where to compromise is a function of...wait for it!...the user's needs. If
you have many types of users, then you may have to design for the lowest
common denominator or provide multiple navigation schemes. Both of those
solutions have their own tradeoffs and problems, too. There ain't no such
thing as a free lunch. For a fuller exploration, see Bill Horton's books.
And when in doubt...test.

> 5.) What does it mean, exactly to create a single source (paper and
> online)?

Single source is the technique/methodology of developing material once, in a
single medium, and reusing is in other places or media. For example, we
often develop material in FrameMaker, then output print, HTML Help,
JavaHelp, HTML, or WinHelp. Single source takes much skill, discipline, and
experience to properly design and create, but it saves enormous amounts of
money and time once it's up and running.

Tim Altom
Simply Written, Inc.
Featuring FrameMaker and the Clustar(TM) System
"Better communication is a service to mankind."
Check our Web site for the upcoming Clustar class info

Learn how to develop HTML-based Help with Macromedia Dreamweaver!
Dec. 7-8, 2000, Orlando, FL -- $100 discount for STC members. or 800-646-9989.

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