Silly tests?

Subject: Silly tests?
From: geoff-h -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA
Date: Mon, 16 Sep 1996 13:01:12 -0500

A few months back, Mom H. gave a course on interpersonal
relations to a group of tech. writers. The course
requirement were for one writing assignment, and with my
help, Mom developed one: to document the preparations for
producing a large formal dinner for a group of the
company's clients. She provided very few details to the
writers and waited for them to fall into several obvious
(to us) traps. When she presented this task to the class,
everyone initially took Stephen Victor's attitude: what the
fuck does this have to do with technical writing, and why
are you insulting my intelligence with this? (This attitude
is less forgivable for a student, but still surprising for
a professional... if you'd seen some of what I had to

By the time the class had completed the task, about half
still somewhat resented having to do it, but grudgingly
acknowledged its validity. The remainder enthusiastically
endorsed the approach. Mom hit them over the head with two
important points that most of them hadn't even considered:

1. What are the actual (not assumed) parameters of the
task? Finding out what your boss wants you to do is the
first step in any docs project. Mom did some interesting
role-playing as the recalcitrant, techwhirler
non-respecting boss who had to be interviewed to get these
details, and as the "technical expert on cooking turkey"
who had no time for techwhirlers. Any of this sound
familiar? <grin>

2. Who will be using the manual? You need to do some form
of audience analysis, no matter how trivial the doc task.
In this case, Mom posed the problems of an audience
including Jews and Moslems (no pork, some potential kosher
food issues) and vegetarians (do they just eat bread if you
provide only meat as a main course?). Without investigating
the issue of dietary restrictions, the dinner would have
been a disaster.

You can't write a manual if you don't know the answer to
either of these questions. The purpose of a trivial test
such as buying lettuce for a salad is to produce an example
that is fast and easy to document in an interview (i.e.,
considerate of the interviewee's time) and that tests
whether the writer actually understands anything about the
serious issue of erroneous assumptions (taking things for
granted). I'd suggest that it's not productive to be
offended by such tests, but rather to make an effort to
understand why an interviewer might pose them.

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Disclaimer: Speaking for myself, not FERIC.

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