The InfoDev Political Spectrum

Politics is always in the news, therefore it’s always a good time to explore it, and the politics of information development.

Do you remember learning the so-called “political spectrum” high school? It looks something like this:

Expanding this a bit, we get:

A more practical view is:

Left/Right is Dead/Wrong
This “left/right” paradigm is extremely outdated. It’s a 200 year old model that originated during the French Revolution, and referred to the seating arrangements in the French Legislative Assembly. Conservative Royalists sat on the right; liberal Montagnards sat on the left.

Much has changed in 200 years. To call this spectrum a gross-over simplification would be a gross-over simplification. It may have been appropriate to describe the political forces in emerging democracies, but in today’s world, it’s more outdated than Windows 1.0.

Tech Writing Rule #1 – Define Your Terms
To see what the problem is, we need to do what we as information developers do best: find out the real meaning behind the terms. What exactly does it mean to be a “liberal” or “conservative”? (Please note that throughout this explanation, I always refer to liberal or conservative in a generic sense, not to any specific party.)

In a nutshell, we could say that:

  • A liberal favours more government control on economic issues, but less control on personal issues.
  • A conservative favours more government control on personal issues, but less control on economic issues.

Personal (or social) issues include: freedom of expression vs. censorship, abortion, marriage & family, drug use, culture, religion and the draft.

Economic issues include: taxes, government regulation of business and free trade.

Filling the Gap

Now, if you have any experience in gap analysis, you should be able to see the problem with the left/right spectrum. “Liberal” and “Conservative” cover only two of four possibilities: the two other combinations are completely missed, specifically:

  • Someone who favours less government control on both economic and social Issues.
  • Someone who favours more government control on both economic and social Issues.

Mr. Nolan’s Opus
To address these exclusions, in 1970, David Nolan, founder of the U.S. Libertarian Party, developed a political spectrum with two axes instead of one. Being a modest person, he called his invention the Nolan chart.
The Nolan chart looks like this:

The horizontal x-axis represents the degree to which a person believes in “economic freedom”: the more to the right you are, the less restrictions you think government should place on economic areas.

The vertical y-axis represents “personal freedom”. The higher up you go on this axis, the less governmental restriction you advocate on personal areas.

The result is the above square divided into four quadrants:

  • the upper-left quadrant represents the traditional political left
  • the lower-right quadrant represents the traditional political right
  • the upper right quadrant represents Libertarians, people who favour less government control in both personal and economic areas
  • the lower left quadrant represents Populists, people who favour more government control in both personal and economic areas (this group is also called authoritarians, statists and wackos)

Critical Acclaim

This chart has its critics. Some say it over-simplifies the political spectrum, and is biased towards its creator’s Libertarian views. The terms “political freedom” and “economic freedom” are biased and can mean different things to different people. A more objective term might be “the degree to which less government control is favoured”, but that’s a bit of a mouthful. Still, relative to the old left/right model, the Nolan chart is a vast improvement, in that it at least acknowledges other points of view.

Documentation Dimensions

How can this model apply to us? Well, if you could isolate the two main properties, beliefs, philosophies, approaches or ideologies within information development, you could create such as spectrum for information developers. Each dimension would have to reflect beliefs in which there would be two opposing but equally valid viewpoints. In essence, each dimension would have to represent a “struggle” or “conflict” between these two views, in much the same way that many people struggle with opposing beliefs on both personal and economic issues in the political spectrum.

The Devil is in the Details

Let’s start with the first dimension. The main issue that I think we all struggle with is: how much detail should we include in our documentation? How much is enough? Do we tell our users everything they possibly need to know? Or do we include only what we think are the most important facts? Do we create documents that are large and complete, but may be difficult to explore, manage and navigate because of their size? Or do we create documents that are as small as possible and quicker to navigate, but possibly exclude necessary information?

The fact is, one can always make a document simpler or more complex. It is simply the nature of information. You can always add more, or take away more, and knowing when to add and remove is the perhaps the most important skill an information developer can possess.

Keep it Complex, Stupid

With this in mind, we can start to develop the first dimension of our two-dimensional spectrum: complexity, which looks like this:

Simplifiers ———— Detailers

On one side are the simplifiers, people who value simplicity above all. They believe only necessary and valuable information should be contained in a document, and that all else should be excluded.

On the other side are the detailers, those who believe that you can never have “too much information”.

In other words:

  • Simplifiers value simplicity over completeness.
  • Detailers value completeness over simplicity.

Just as in politics, there is no right or wrong here. Reasonable people are entitled to hold contrary beliefs. In fact, we are all both simplifiers and detailers, however if your really examine yourself and your work closely, you’ll find that you tend to be on one side of the spectrum or the other.

A Model of Modularity

Complexity is the first aspect of our spectrum: what should the second one be? This is a little trickier: it is modularity, the degree to which we create, store and reuse text objects. Whereas complexity deals with how we view information, modularity deals with how we actually develop and manage information. We can view this dimension as:

Consolidators —- Separators

Consolidation Anxiety vs. Separation Anxiety
Consolidators believe that all pieces of information should be consolidated into as few places as possible, and avoid breaking text up into pieces. They feel that while reusing text has its advantages, it can be difficult to maintain, and creates the possibility of boxing one’s self into a corner when it comes to reuse. When consolidators do re-use text, the text blocks tend to be large and stable, for example, copyright and legal information. Consolidators value the flexibility of being able to change most text anywhere, without causing any undue effects throughout their documentation.

Separators believe that information needs to be separated into its component parts. Common text within a document or throughout a documentation set is stored as reusable pieces, so that if a change is made in one piece, it will automatically propagate to the others. Separators recognize this requires more work in the short term, as text objects have to be planned, created and managed very carefully. The objects may need to be broken up further still, requiring extensive rework. However, separators consider the payoff worth it – a modular documentation set.

To sum up:

  • Consolidators value flexibility over reusability.
  • Separators value reusability over flexibility.

Again, there is no right or wrong position here. I have worked on projects where reusability was neither required nor practical, and others where it was absolutely essential. Some documents may require more modularity than others. Even in modular projects, it’s always a struggle to decide just how large to make the text object. It is this struggle that define the modularity dimension.

Full Spectrum Analysis

Putting these two dimensions together, we get the full information development political spectrum:

Complexity (the horizontal x-axis) represents the degree to which you believe information should be complex and detailed, instead of simple and elegant. The more to the right you are on this axis, the more you favour detail over simplicity.

Modularity (the vertical y-axis) represents the degree to which you believe information should be separated into reusable parts. The higher up on this axis you are, the more you think content should be modularized.

What’s Your Sign?
Summing up the four quadrants:

  • Consolidating Simplifiers (bottom left) believe documentation should be as simple and consolidated as possible.
  • Consolidating Detailers (bottom right) believe documentation should be as detailed and consolidated as possible.
  • Separating Simplifiers (top left) believe documentation should be as simple and modular as possible.
  • Separating Detailers (top right) believe documentation should be as detailed and modular as possible.

I see no conflict in believing that documentation should be both simple and modular, or, alternatively, both complex and consolidated. Simplicity refers to what the user experiences, whereas modularity refers to the information that the technical communicator sees, creates and manages. A simple document, therefore, can be very modular, and a complex document can be consolidated.

Beyond the Fourth Dimension
Complexity and modularity are the two dimensions we have explored on the technical communication spectrum, however there are many others, including:

  • the importance of content vs. form
  • using text vs. illustrations

Others dimensions reflect the specific type of technical communicator you are:

  • full-time vs. part-time
  • lone writer vs. team writer
  • your level of experience: beginner vs. intermediate vs. senior
  • your specific role: technical writer, information developer, information architect, usability specialist, manager, editor, content manager, technical illustrator, teacher, web designer

Other dimensions include particular areas or documentation types that you may favour working with or in:

  • internal vs. external documentation
  • technical vs. non-technical documentation
  • online Help vs. PDF files vs. web-based documents
  • documenting for beginners vs. documenting for advanced users
  • documenting theories and overviews vs. documenting procedures and examples
  • standard documentation vs. training documentation vs. support documentation
  • the specific industry in which you work: software, hardware, medicine, engineering, manufacturing, aviation, military, biotechnology, government, and so on

The technical communication universe is indeed a complex multi-dimensional one, large enough for all tech communicators of all political stripes.

See you on the spectrum…