Are best practices standards?

Subject: Are best practices standards?
From: susanh -at- cardsetc -dot- com -dot- au
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
Date: Tue, 26 Oct 1999 09:24:53 +1000

There is great divergence in the tech communication industry on what we are
trying to achieve and how we go about it. We think we are developing for
the same outcomes but you only have to follow discussions on our list to
see that people are coming from many different starting points.

I don't believe you can separate the outcome you want your information
product to achieve for your users from the practices that you adopt to
achieve that outcome, and I use my outcomes to resolve my "best practices"
dilemma in the following way.

I work continuously to refine and clarify my desired user outcome:
information that really supports the software user as they progress along
the performance continuum; that enables users to take up information in
their own way and at their own time. For example, if the user, like most
users, chooses not to read "essential" getting started information, I try
to make that same information accessible deep in a task.

We all have explicit or implicit desired user/documentation outcomes. Yours
will most likely be different from mine or you will have a wider outcome

So are there best practices that are outside ourselves.. outside our magic
and intuitive designs?

I've just come back from the NSW (Australia) STC conference where I was
exposed once again to lots of good ways of achieving particular
user/documentation outcomes. When the "good way" was in sync with my sort
of outcome, I took particular note and started thinking about where I might
change my "practices" to gain leverage from the "good way". Other ideas I
just found "interesting".

In developing my 'best practices", I draw upon the rich sharing that goes
on among tech communicators plus the valuable ideas in books plus my own
ability, but all the time, I am measuring a practice against the outcomes
it must achieve.

So to Mr Anonymous I suggest

1. Work with your group to develop a consensus about what they are trying
to do: how they expect users to use their product, what minimum results
they must deliver to users; where they expect their doco products to vary
because of use or whatever you choose as the framework. (I think you will
need good "externalisation" techniques to manage this process and ensure
that people don't leave the table believing they all agree when they all
have different ideas.)

2. Draw upon the rich fabric of ideas that are available to stimulate your
group to define a working set of "how" they will try to achieve those
objectives. Some "best practices" may be defined as "information models",
some as working standards for layout and presentation, some as a minimum
set of usability criteria (and I don't mean readability measures, rather
empowerment attributes).

Susan Harkus

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