The need for accuracy?

Subject: The need for accuracy?
From: "Geoff Hart" <geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
Date: Wed, 15 Dec 1999 11:50:35 -0500

Speaking as a user of software and hardware, accuracy means
three things to me:
- if you say something is there, it must be there: it must be where
you described it, and it must look the way you described it.
- if you tell me it does something, it must do what you said, in the
manner you told me to do it, and if there are any deviations that
may occur, I need you to tell me about them.
- if I need to understand details, those details must be present; if
not, a fuller explanation is unlikely to help me complete my task.

"Technical" accuracy can be sacrificed so long as these three
criteria are met. I don't need to know that "saving a file on my hard
disk" really means "my file is translated into a series of magnetic
domains written onto a thin film that can reliably store onto those
magnetic domains". All very interesting, but not at all relevant to
my understanding of the "Save as" command. Conversely, I do
need to know that the "trash" icon on my old Mac isn't really a
trashcan: unlike the new "trash", it's actually an incinerator that
eliminates the files as soon as I shut down the computer. In both
cases, the required level of accuracy is the level that affects how I
use the item, not some quest for absolute truth. This being the
case, it occurs to me that the question isn't really one of accuracy,
but rather of level of detail. And that means it's ok to use a
minimalist approach: provide only the level of detail that users need
to complete their tasks.

Once, my 6-year-old sun asked me why the sky was blue. I started
with simple explanation, but each answer generated another "why".
I completely lost him long before the time I got down to the
quantum mechanical properties of light and the interaction of light
waves with atoms, but he kept asking right up to the final answer,
which was "because that's the way the universe is". That sort of
curiosity is highly atypical, but there may well be situations in
which it's important to fully satisfy the needs of complete technical
accuracy (e.g., when you're writing for scientists). The trick lies in
knowing when that's the case.

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca (Pointe-Claire, Quebec)
"If you can't explain it to an 8-year-old, you don't understand it"--Albert Einstein

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