More Philosophy

Subject: More Philosophy
From: Stuart Burnfield <slb -at- FS -dot- COM -dot- AU>
Date: Tue, 14 May 1996 08:42:42 +0800

A couple of weeks ago, I asked whether "the greatest good of the greatest
number" was a fair summary of the best approach to technical communication.
There were many interesting replies.

A few people thought that by "the greatest number" I meant the largest
single category of users. I agree that writing one manual set for one class
of readers is not a good approach -- one size fits nobody.

I had in mind a user/task matrix -- several types of user, each with
different background and experience, needing to do different tasks. Put a
priority on each main task/user combination. Your budget determines which
ones get done and how much time is spent on each.

You should be able to handle most requirements for most users fairly easily.
Carrying on to cater for every requirement of every user would be a massive
and probably an impossible task. You run into the law of diminishing returns
(which I believe was formulated by a fellow called Pareto, and is sometimes
called the '80/20 rule' -- correct me if I'm wrong, economists).

Documenting for the greatest good of the largest group is quite effective,
to start with. After a while though, as you document for this single group
ever more lavishly, you're not achieving much extra benefit from each
dollar you spend. You could get a greater return for that dollar by
spending it on another group in the target audience, or another task.

A concrete example: you're documenting UNIX software. Most of your target
audience are experienced UNIX users. If resources are limited, the obvious
way to start is by focusing on the task and the product, and not to teach
UNIX basics at the same time. However, at some point, you achieve more
overall by spending time on the smaller group of users who don't know
much UNIX. It might be as simple as spending an hour preparing a short
bibliography or glossary. Overall, that hour achieves more -- "the greater
good" -- than if it were the 1001st hour devoted to the larger group.

Someone correctly pointed out that you can't measure the greatest good
until you define what 'good' is. This is a knotty problem and one that is
often debated here on the list. I don't have a quick answer but I think
the user/task approach is the best way to start. Who are the users? What
do they need to do? What do they need to know? What do they already know?

Well, thanks again for your thoughtful replies, both on and off the list.

If anyone is still feeling philosophical, there's another question that's
always puzzled me: if a tree falls in the middle of a forest and there's
no-one there to witness it, did it really happen? And either way, is there
anything to stop me cutting it up and taking it home for firewood?

Regards
---
Stuart Burnfield (slb -at- fs -dot- com -dot- au) Voice: +61 9 328 8288
Functional Software Pty Ltd Fax: +61 9 328 8616

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