Re: An urban legend regarding documentation?

Subject: Re: An urban legend regarding documentation?
From: Jan Henning <henning -at- r-l -dot- de>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 13 Nov 2003 18:48:59 +0100

I actually read three or four different accounts of this in grad school. The
authors I remember reading were Dorothy Windsor (article), Edward Tufte (in
one of his books), and Patrick Moore (article).

I'm pretty sure that Edward Tufte (who created a great account of the breakdown in communications) never mentioned a warning being omitted from a manual.

The reason the warning was disregarded was, according to Tufte, entirely different:

The test engineers suspected that cold weather might increase the chance of O-ring failures. They tried to communicate this to NASA management, but failed to present the information they had (which strongly supported their case) in a convincing way.

They included irrelevant information, did not properly consider the significance of different classes of information, and did not make clear enough the existing correlation. A presentation of the same information in a chart created by Tufte makes the problem abundantly clear and would have in all likelihood prevented the launch, had NASA management seen it.

Proposed tech-writing lessons:

- It has not yet been demonstrated that you can bring down a shuttle as a lone tech writer ;-)

- More information is not always better.

- Having all the information there may not be enough - proper classification and structure may be required for it to reach the reader.

- If you have no talent for graphics, it may be better to get somebody to do them for you than to try to muddle through - even if it costs money.

Jan Henning

Jan Henning
Am Schlossberg 14, D-82547 Eurasburg, Germany

Phone: +49 700 0200 0700, Fax: +49 8179 9307-12
E-Mail: henning -at- r-l -dot- de, Web:



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RE: An urban legend regarding documentation?: From: Westbrook,Beth

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