re: What if they can't spell?

Subject: re: What if they can't spell?
From: "Christensen, Kent" <lkchris -at- sandia -dot- gov>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 5 Sep 2001 08:57:29 -0600

re: there's a lot of people out there who can't spell. Can we account for
them when designing help systems and manuals?

We certainly can as long as we resist the notion that our index is the most
important part of our work.

Seems to me a good idea when designing a "help system" is to follow your
process. That is, as the user works her/his way through the process and
comes to a point where s/he gets stuck, there should be a help button or
link right there that links to a helpful discussion of the process in
question. A link to just an index at that point seems near criminal but
surely represents some degree of incompetence or laziness on the part of the
help system designer.

A manual? Well, perhaps the table of contents deserves some consideration.
The user is going to have to know how to read, but then that's a given isn't
it? (No, perhaps the manual, including the table of contents, can be all
pictures.) One assumes that inability to spell is not the same thing as
inability to read sentences and phrases (like chapter/section titles),
pronounce the words, and understand the content.

It's probably true it's a difficult or at least time consuming task for a
tech writer to produce an index. They are often times expected. Neither of
these notions, however, should lead to the conclusion the index is the most
important thing. If the only navigation available for your help system or
manual is an index, there are larger problems than whether your reader can
spell. There are clearly some basics to provide before the solution becomes
"natural-language questions and technology for online help like the
Microsoft Office Assistant," I'd offer.

Not only that (and given the notion the index is presented alphabetically of
course) one might indeed assume as noted that the user can guess the first
letter of the desired word and possibly find it given familiarity with the
order of the alphabet, some ability to read and pronounce, and familiarity
with the meaning of the word in question. I somehow never considered the
notion that a person who would misspell a word when writing it would
likewise look for the word in an index in this same misspelled form. Isn't
an inability to spell a word an indication the concept isn't internalized?
Are misspellings internalized? Well, perhaps yes--once upon a time users
could look up "fone company" in the Oklahoma City phone book and find it.
But this is a matter of pronunciation confusion caused by the complexities
of our language--is it f or ph, c or k--as much as a spelling problem, but

... are you going to have "kewl" and "fone" as well as "grammer" and
"grammar" in your index?

Is the number of possible misspellings finite or near infinite?

Let's, see. Some people write numbers backwards. Should your page numbers
be presented both ways? In childrens' books?

Then, there's the assumption Google, et al, search document text as well as
titles and metadata descriptions and key words. Should I produce second
versions of my documents with most of the words misspelled?

A fun discussion but mostly a nonissue for me. I'll leave Clippy for Bill
and Melinda.


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