Re: There's more to it than grammar

Subject: Re: There's more to it than grammar
From: Johndan Johnson-Eilola <johndan -at- PURDUE -dot- EDU>
Date: Sun, 14 Mar 1999 15:32:49 -0500

This is rather long--my apologies. But it's an issue that's concerned me
for quite some time.

One of the more problematic assumptions about technical communication is
that it frequently assumes users already know, in general, what they want
to do only only need assistance in error recovery, impasses, etc. Although
there's nearly always an aspect of this involved in technology use, we
often forget that users usually could also use a lot of help figuring out
what The Big Picture actually is.

To take an example that I've discussed in a number of other places, the
online help in Microsoft Word tends to cover concrete, isolated technical
functions such as inserting page numbers, changing fonts, printing pages,
etc. I would agree that this information is crucial for many users, because
without knowing how to do those isolated things, users could not accomplish
their more general goals.

But why aren't we yet connecting this type of learning (which I think is
closer to "training") to more general training, such as instruction on how
to construct coherent sentences, how to write effective headings in
reports, how to design and organize tabular data in ways that promote
effective communication? (Or, many of you are saying at this point, "how to
write a brief email message?") The closest thing we have is Wizards which,
frankly, are often so poorly conceived that they merely mystify work rather
than improve it, or automated style analysis programs, which (as far as
I've been able to tell) are really only useful in helping already-expert
writers catch errors (rather than helping novice writers, who have
difficulty catching the numerous mistakes the style anslysis program made).

Although it's easy to argue that this type of teaching is difficult to do
in online situations, or that users don't *want* that type of information,
I don't buy the excuse, since I have seen isolated cases where it takes
place (usually vertical applications where the online help has been written
to a small core of specific users). What concerns me more is that online
help authors seem afraid to even allude to such issues; by ignoring them,
we tend to make them disappear. So when MS Word, to continue my example,
walks users through a Wizard that designs their resume but doesn't talk
about the *reasons* one might choose one of three very different layouts,
users are encouraged to think that the choice of layout doesn't even
matter. (I base this last observation on numerous discussions with students
in my tech writing and business writing classes, who will frequently defend
choices by saying that a Wizard told them to do it, as if that were a sound
reason.) Lee Brasseur, at U Illinois, has done research on this that shows
users of spreadsheet programs typically designed less usable graphic charts
than users who were only given a pencil and paper, because the software
users relied on pre-canned formats, mixing patterns and layouts that
confused rather than helped people read the charts.

Can anyone provide examples of places where technical communication --
specifically, online doc for software -- tends toward the
"teaching/learning" side of the spectrum rather than the "training/isolated
function" end?

- Johndan Johnson-Eilola
Director of Professional Writing
Department of English voice: 765.494.3772
Purdue University <mailto:johndan -at- purdue -dot- edu>
West Lafayette, IN 47907-1356 <>

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