For Your Information

We are a funny bunch of people. We do things often without realizing the fun in those things. We push doors that say “Pull”; we scratch-off the “No” in the “No more than one person allowed” signs; and we see more advertisements on the walls that say “Stick No Bills.”

But, if that is how we “do” things, then the way we search for information is no way different either: Be it misinformation or misinterpretation, we often do not look for information correctly. It is true that we search predominantly based on the keywords or key signs that relate to our intentions, but we do not/cannot always frame the right questions. And, that’s why delivering a message correctly is as important as delivering the correct message.

I have observed that readers either look for the information of their interests or look into the information that appears interesting. In one of his recent statuses on LinkedIn, Scott Abel has quoted Steve Krug, whose following opinion resembles my observations, “It doesn’t matter how many times I have to click, as long as each click is a mindless, unambiguous choice.” Readers, as I see, are like unattended children in shopping malls: they approach anything that appears attractive. Also, they may not know/find what they are looking for (Possibly, even forget about it!), but they keep looking into things with amuse.

To me, Steve’s thought is both, a problem statement and a solution. In my current stint, we reverse-test our documentation. As soon as we prepare the CHMs, we install and test those. Within our team, we even joke about finding how helpful our help really is. While the readers access help only to have more information (For whatever reason, if any.), we help them navigate to the correct information correctly, which helps them map their understanding with the information in the intended manner.

Information findability, as I understand, is a cyclical exercise, which is about answering some basic questions, such as those that follow:

Looking up information is like asking some basic questions. But, it is a cyclical process.
Looking up information is like asking some basic questions. But, it is a cyclical process.

And, Steve’s comment about “mindless, unambiguous choice” supplies answers to some of those questions. In most cases, the degree of simplicity in the design philosophy is directly proportional to the quotient of the user experience. And, that’s why we are always somewhere between the Unhappy and Satisfied ratings on the scale of user experience.

Information findability is always the priority when I prepare documentation. But, it is only now that I realize that information is a goal as well as a by-product. That’s because readers either shift their focus as they look for things, switch tasks in between the search process, or continue to fish for the information at the wrong spot. Reverse-testing the CHMs, for instance, has helped us trace gaps in the flow of information just so that the goal doesn’t become the by-product.

I’ve learned that facts, information, knowledge, need, and perceptions drive the reader’s searches. That is why the search processes or flows can be difficult to predict. Readers restlessly look for the required information, and my job is to make their searches faster and traceable. Though, this still won’t make the search processes predictable. But, this would help us better our design philosophy, so that readers can mentally map the flow of data, and understand and implement the required information.

Although the goal of any search is to locate required information, it is the transition (progression?) towards the information that creates the user experience. Readers, as I said, look for information differently. Their journey may not necessarily begin from one problem and end up on its solution. If you see the circular flow in the above figure closely, you will realize that this continuous process of locating information works in different combinations: it can be progressive, regressive, lateral, parallel, abridged, or aloof – Or, maybe all of that.

So far, we have talked about only the word-heavy information models. We know that readers process pictures far easier and faster than the written words. Or, amongst the many ways of helping readers locate and process the required information, Infographics are a far better alternative than the word-heavy models. But, we will talk about it in some other post. As of now, the following conclusions are noteworthy:

  • Embedded help is far more accessible than the supplementary documentation bouquet. If my readers cannot find the required information, they will either switch tasks or, even worst, the product.
  • I need a lot more touch-points to help my readers locate information. Organized content is like a sanctum. And, the devotees need more than one door to seek the almighty. After all, it is not seeing the almighty that counts as user experience (in technical communication), but the journey (or Navigation, in this case) to Him.
  • Intuitive, mindless (Thank you, Steve, for the word!), and tacit checkpoints help readers mentally map their understanding with the product or information structure. Once things are in place, the readers may not remember what the solution was, but they will certainly remember how they got to it.
  • Readers begin searching information based on their needs, and continue looking for it based on familiarity and interests. Simplicity and progressive disclosure are, therefore, of key importance. An overload of information will shift their focus, and will render the required information as a by-product. And, we don’t want that to happen.

In one of the next posts, I will talk about the Bhagwad Gita’s inverted tree and its relation with the grouping and categorization of information.

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