Impact of information explosion on our profession (Was: on custom-built documents & feature databases...)

Subject: Impact of information explosion on our profession (Was: on custom-built documents & feature databases...)
From: Chet Ensign <Chet_Ensign%LDS -at- NOTES -dot- WORLDCOM -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 19 Mar 1996 09:38:40 -0600

Technical writers all,

Two interesting threads caught my attention this week. One asked why this list
has so much discussion about technology rather than about writing. The other
was started by Tina Klein's question about how to build a system to document a
highly modular product line. The threads caught my attention because I've been
thinking about the relationship between writers and their tools lately, and
these go right to the heart of what I am thinking. I'm curious to hear what you
all think of the conclusions I am drawing.

Many if not most of us now work in industries where the universe of information
that could potentially be of use to the customer is on an exponential growth
curve. The one that I'm working with right now, the semiconductor industry, has
reached the point where paper can no longer do the job. The data books that are
the primary vehicle of communication between design engineer and customer are
only small snapshots of the data a customer will need. There is much left out,
some for proprietary reasons, but most because there's just no way to get it
all on paper. Even if you could hire the army necessary to write it all down,
you'd be shipping every chip with its own encyclopedia (instead of just the
telephone directory that it ships with today).

Other industries are in the same boat: aerospace, software development,
pharmaceuticals, insurance, mutual funds, heavy manufacturing... Nor is the
volume of the information the only problem. People need it presented
differently for different purposes. A new user needs one kind of organization
and presentation and sequence and order and reading level. A novice needs
another. An experienced user needs yet another presentation when s/he is
learning a new feature vs. when s/he is trying to remember that one little
caveat s/he saw once a long time ago but needs to have **right now.** Many of
the problems I see people grappeling with here come straight out of this
dilemma. "What's the *best* way to present this information?" And that's the
problem -- there is no *best* way. There is only what the reader needs now.

We are trying to manage this with the 1990's version of Gutenberg's printing
press. No offense to any of our current word processing/desktop publishing
programs, but they are just faster, saucy versions of something introduced to
the West in the 1500s. Our model is still the linear,
put-words-down-on-paper-one-after-the-other paradigm (oh, sorry -- 90's buzz
word) that writing always has been. Writing **alone** won't serve for too much
longer. It is being overwhelmed.

What I think we need is a revolution in the tool set, one that merges the best
of wp/dtp technology with the best of client/server database technology. We
need a tool that allows us to write what is the writable part of our
information -- the words and organizing principles that provide the context for
conveying information -- yet at the same time populate it with facts, stats
and details from the database component of the package. For example, I am
looking at a picture of a semiconductor memory register. It shows the register
names and beginning and ending offset addresses. Somebody wrote this using a
table editor. Yet this graphic could almost certainly have been automatically
generated straight out of a product design database. That's the sort of directi
on that I am thinking here.

I have no idea what this tool looks like. No yet. But perhaps, if we talk about
it, we can come up with the requirements for such a tool, propose a
hypothetical design. And maybe, if we can express what we need, the product
manufacturers out there can build it.

Well, that's what I'm thinking about. If anyone wants to jump in on this, I am
all ears.

Best regards,

/chet

Chet Ensign
Logical Design Solutions
571 Central Avenue http://www.lds.com
Murray Hill, NJ 07974 censign -at- lds -dot- com [email]
908-771-9221 [Phone] 908-771-0430 [FAX]


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