End User Task Analysis Essay

Subject: End User Task Analysis Essay
From: Anthony Markatos <tonymar -at- HOTMAIL -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 29 Apr 1998 17:50:13 PDT

To all Technical Writers:

Any comments on the below (brief) essay on end user task analysis would
be appriciated. I am thinking of submitting it to my local STC
chapter's newsletter.



In most endevors, the first step is both the hardest and the most
important. The first step in any software technical communications
project is (or should be) end user task analysis. In every project that
I have worked on (eleven years experience) the main thing that needed to
be done in task analysis has ALWAYS been the same. That is to obtain a
systematic understanding of the individual tasks that the end users
performed and how all those tasks interrelated.

Understanding the interrelationships between the individual tasks is
especially important. Indeed, for systems of any significant size,
understanding the interrelationships is the litmus test to how well the
individual tasks are understood. Any misunderstanding on or omission of
steps to performed become obvious when we try to tie all the tasks
together.

How is such an understanding obtained? The key principle is that only
by following the flow of data is it possible to capture the functions
(i.e., tasks) accomplished and their interrelationships. Data flow
diagrams must be employeed. They are the only end user task analysis
tool that focuses on the flow of data. There is no other. Many
technical communicators mistakenly beleive that data flow diagrams are a
computer systems design tool. They are not - they can very effectively
be utilized to analyize tasks in which no computer technology is
employed.

Is analysis of the audience's background important? Yes, but in my
experience, it has never been THE critical factor. Lack of such
analysis has never caused things to grind to a halt like a poor
systematic analysis of tasks to be performed does. Ditto for analysis
of the audience's learning style or any other milestone in a typical end
user task analysis project.

An understanding of the tasks and their interrelationship is the
framework upon which all other analysis efforts and the documentation's
design are based. It's level of completedness determines the success or
failure of any software technical communications project.

Now, consider the content of virtually every book on technical writing
or technical writing oriented end user task analysis that has been
written. I have not read them all, but I have read numerous. Most
make no mention at all of the importance of a systematic understanding
of end user tasks and their interrelationships.

Those that do talk about a systematic approach limit the discussion to
about 1 1/2 pages burried in the middle of a 400 page tomb. None of
these discuss the criticallity of employing data flow diagrams.
Typically, they espouse the use of computer program design flow chart
techniques. I can not tell you how many times I have seen technical
communicator try to utilize such techniques for a task analysis. The
results have always been the same - complete failure or very minimal
benefit.

In summary, effective end user task analysis is based upon an approach
that focuses on the interrelationships between the individual tasks.
Data flow diagrams are the only tool that support such an approach. The
only way gain expertise in end user task analysis this is through
experience "in-the-trenches" of technical documentation projects.
Currently available books on the subject fail to discuss THE key issue.

Tony Markatos
(tonymar -at- hotmail -dot- com)

SHOW ME YOUR DFD'S

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