TechWhirl (TECHWR-L) is a resource for technical writing and technical communications professionals of all experience levels and in all industries to share their experiences and acquire information.
For two decades, technical communicators have turned to TechWhirl to ask and answer questions about the always-changing world of technical communications, such as tools, skills, career paths, methodologies, and emerging industries. The TechWhirl Archives and magazine, created for, by and about technical writers, offer a wealth of knowledge to everyone with an interest in any aspect of technical communications.
Subject:Re: Minimalism From:Lisa Higgins <lisa -at- DRDDO1 -dot- EI -dot- LUCENT -dot- COM> Date:Mon, 3 Feb 1997 10:38:40 +0000
> At 09:35 AM 1/31/97 -0400, Victor Chapel wrote:
> >Doors for instance. Why should any door ever need a "push" or
> >"pull" sign. Shouldn't it be obvious?
> The lawyers probably require it to prevent product liability suits. There is
> entirely too much placarding to satisfy legal requirements. In my workplace
> there are two (2!) signs labeling each of the restrooms: one on the door and
> one on the wall. Presumably, if one falls off....
> On doors you usually have a bar to push and a handle to pull. Do you also
> need a sign? Maybe. I had always struggled with the doors to a local
> bookstore until I realized they had somehow been installed incorrectly. You
> have to push on a handle and pull on a bar. Talk about non-intuitive (or is
> that another thread?)
There are a number of these types of things that people do take for
Cold is on the right and hot on the left; the handle on a toilet is
on the right; up is on and down is off; bars mean pull and handles
mean push; and the minimize button is a little down arrow in the
upper-right corner of a Windows application.
If you're familiar with the conventions, you're better equipped to
decide what needs to be explained and what doesn't. (I had to
seriously think about where the hot and cold water faucets are.)
This all comes down to knowing your audience and knowing your topic.
Have they been using software on this platform? Is the software
compliant with industry standards?
For most GUI applications, I don't find it necessary to document
every little standard feature any more so than I wouldn't hesitate to
assume that most users who are familiar with faucet handles would
probably be able to figure out those round knobs. But what we're
dealing with is more FEAR than anything else. I speak from
experience. I am relatively intrepid when it comes to computers, but
although I KNOW the standard with doors, I have not been able to
integrate it into my daily ritual. When I approach a door in an
office building, there's this nagging little fear that I'm going to
screw up in a big way. I'm going to push when I should pull or pull
when I should push or push on the wrong side or maybe just slip on a
banana peel or my giant, floppy shoes.
I KNOW the standards, and even if I don't, I can certainly figure out
how to get a door open or at least remove the hinges and escape. I
want that Push sign because, dang it, I'm scared. I'm going to do
something stupid. I'm going to break the door, look like an idiot,
and everyone will laugh at me forever.
That idiot sign gives me just that little boost of confidence I need
to rehearse looking cool as I approach the door. Yessirree, Bub. I am
the Queen of Cool. Check ME out, opening the door correctly on the
I'm not arguing that, consequently, all user docs should include
every last detail. I am, however, saying that if your users are as
new to computers as I apparently am to civilized society, a little
hand-holding can go a long, long way.
lhiggins -at- lucent -dot- com
PS: The book Psychology/Design of Everyday Things (POET) covers
a lot of these standards of industrial design and the reasoning
behind them. Really cool book, and an excellent reference for anyone
who needs to make assumptions about how people understand things.