Re: There's more to it than grammar

Subject: Re: There's more to it than grammar
From: John Wilson <jwilson -at- AMADEUS -dot- NET>
Date: Fri, 12 Mar 1999 09:57:24 +0100

To expand on the previous mail and replies from Scott and others: I think
it is time for a change of focus.

This tends to be a rather inward-looking profession. Technical writers
think about documentation and manuals, which are only among several means
to an end. We should think about users - who they are, what they want to
do and how products should allow them to do it. Surely for most consumer
(non-specialist) software products, the need of a manual is an admission of
failure in this regard, or at least an indication of much room for

The STC (remember the initials stand for Society for Technical
Communication) sends the wrong message again by having competitions for
manuals. Even if this were a good idea, I think the quantity of contextual
information required (yes, about those pesky users and their day-to-day
work) would make it impossible to judge any manual's quality by anything
but the most superficial of criteria.

Believe it or not, there are even such things as "manual usability"
studies! These are no doubt worthwhile in certain specialised situations,
but for most products loudly miss the point and send the wrong message, to
put it mildly - I want a usable product, please, not a usable manual, and I
suspect I am not alone. Is there a competition for usable products?

And I am not making all this up. Alan Cooper (a programmer, who developed
Visual Basic) wrote a book called "About Face - the essentials of user
interface design" (published 1995 by IDG, the "Dummies" pubisher) where he
describes where product design goes wrong and why. To state the obvious,
the book is about users using software - not about documentation. It is
not a dry catalogue of rules, but a from-first-principles explanation of
why users do and don't understand in software products. Add it to the
extemely short list of relevant books on technical communication.

Engineers tend to be technology-driven and design products according to
the way computers work, not the way users work: writers are
documentation-driven and design user information around the way documents
work, not the way users work. Ironically, technical writers are guilty of
the very thing we often accuse programmers of: focusing on the product at
the expense of the user.

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