Scalding vat of liquid tungsten, please (was Educating Rita)

Subject: Scalding vat of liquid tungsten, please (was Educating Rita)
From: Andrew Plato <intrepid_es -at- YAHOO -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 4 May 1999 00:34:25 -0700

--- "Huber, Mike" <mrhuber -at- SOFTWARE -dot- ROCKWELL -dot- COM> wrote:

> It seems to me that there is a rather significant product
> differentiation between what you sell and what Andrew sells. His
> service is more focused, yours more comprehensive. My guess is
> that you both provide exactly what your clients want.

This is a good point and one that captures a tech writing philosophy well. I am
a strong believer in "give the customer what he/she wants not what I think
he/she wants."

I think it is very unprofessional to start ASSUMING you know what is going on
better than the next guy. I've been inside too many projects to realize that
3/4 the time, my perspective and understanding of the project, user,
technology, etc. is not 100% keen.

Fortunately, most engineers LOVE blathering for hours about their rationale
behind their brilliant designs. What I have found is that if I let engineers
explain themselves to me, most of the time they arrive at the same conclusions
I do. And all I had to do was ask them why.

This is where the whole "advocate for the user" concept breaks down. The
"user-advocacy" concept assumes that you as a tech writer have some unique
vision into the mind of users. The truth, you have no better vision than the
next guy - engineers included. There are plenty of cases where what seems like
a stupid UI decision actually makes sense once you understand the engineer's
intentions behind the design. Therefore, in a rush to defend the tender
sensibilities of the user, it is easy to forget to ask a simple question - "why
did you do that?"

Therefore, rather than "offer subtle hints on how to improve the design", my
tactic has always been to question design and engineering intentions.

The easiest way to spot stupidity is to question it. To prove my point, just
ask me about twentieth century jazz legends. It won't take more than a few
seconds to highlight my resounding ignorance about jazz. Yet if you asked me
about cats or Chrysler products - hell, we could sit here all night.

So, when my client asks me to produce something, like a scalding hot vat of
liquid tungsten, I do not immediately assume I know what they are doing. In
reality, I may know exactly what they are going to do and I know it is terribly
dangerous. However, there are an infinate number of possibilities I cannot
anticipate. A simple questioning of the process can often point out absurdity
in a very non-threatening way.

ME: "Say there partner, so what you going to do with this scalding hot vat of
liquid tungsten? Seems like a pretty dangerous thing to have around."

CLIENT: "Why I am going to pour it on a box full of adorable fop-eared
puppies."

ME: "Gosh, that seems awfully mean. Why would you want to do that?"

CLIENT: "I read that is the best way to get stains out of the rug."

ME: "Really! I always heard club soda worked. It won't burn a hole in the
earth's crust and the puppies can go to this nice home."

CLIENT: "Say, that's not a bad idea. I think I'll try that club soda thing.
Here have the tungsten back."


So, to answer the "user advocacy" arguments: rather than finding ways to get
your opinion heard, start asking why people are doing things. You can get your
opinion heard without ever saying it. Asking the right question at the right
time can make you look like a friggin' genius and you never had to take the
risk of actually telling people what you thought.

For you advanced liquid tungsten swimmers: master the fine art of "leading
conversations". If you really want to win over engineers, ask questions that
you already know the answer. If the engineer gives you a stupid answer, you
say "gosh, I always thought it was XXXX." BAM! You'll snap that smug engineer
back into the stone age and he'll think your a genius. Even if you're answer
was wrong, you open the door for the engineer to explain it to you and that
makes them feel all big and powerful. In three short weeks on the Nutri-Smug
plan, you can gain more knowledge than any college class could teach.

Zoiks. 12:30 AM! Night night.

Andrew


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