Levels of detail -- are we beyond this?

Subject: Levels of detail -- are we beyond this?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L' <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Tom Johnson <tomjohnson1492 -at- gmail -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 15 Aug 2008 16:38:47 -0400

Tom Johnson wondered: <<I just ran into some detailed instructions on
going to a website that look like this:
1. Open Internet Explorer by clicking *Start* > *Programs* >
2. In the *Address* field, enter *http://sampleurl.com* and press
Is it me, or is this kind of detail totally unnecessary in this day
and age?>>

It's you. <g> Actually, I'm only partially kidding about this. The
real answer is that the level of detail depends entirely on your
audience. There's still a startling degree of computer illiteracy out
there, and unless you can be sure that your audience already knows
these kinds of things, sometimes you really do have to provide
"training wheels".

For most of what we techwhirlers do, "Go to the following address:
[address]" would suffice to replace these instructions. For that
matter, we might simply say "Register at the following address". We
can safely assume that our audience knows how to do all the basic
computer tasks related to registering, particularly with a well-
designed interface. But there are many important audiences (e.g.,
refugees from developing countries, seniors who never learned to use
computers on the job) who really do need this level of help. I've
worked with some of them in the past.

Probably what's more important is to start by asking ourselves what
kind of person would be using what we're documenting. If nobody
without a certain minimal level of expertise would even consider
using the product, then we can eliminate any "training wheels" that
expertise provides; for example, we no longer need to explain how to
use the mouse or keyboard in software documentation.

But if we were distributing a brochure to teach seniors how to use an
online government benefits registration system, we might well need to
provide that level of detail. We probably wouldn't make it part of
every screen, because that would seriously piss off most of our
audience (since most now know how to do this), but it would probably
be appropriate to provide this information via a "Need help?" link.

-- Geoff Hart
ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca / geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com
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levels of detail -- are we beyond this?: From: Tom Johnson

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