The Governing Dynamics of Documentation

Related imageGame theory is a specialized field of mathematics that analyzes choices and results in strategic situations, or games, as the players try to maximize their success. It can be applied to practically any situation where one is making a choice for personal benefit, for example:

  • choosing a restaurant
  • hiring a worker
  • buying and selling stocks
  • deciding who to marry
  • playing poker (or any other game)

Game theory has been applied to such diverse fields as: economics, evolutionary biology, engineering, political science, psychology, philosophy and business management. Google even uses it to maximize the advertising revenue generated from their AdWords. All of these areas require making the best decisions possible in order to create the maximum benefit.

Game theory takes into account the fact that humans are essentially self-centered, that is, that we tend to act in a way that we think will be best for us. Even when we appear to be selfless, we’re still acting in our own self-interest. For example, giving to charity gives us the benefit of feeling that we’re doing a good thing, a benefit that we’re willing to pay for.

The Nash equilibrium (also know as governing dynamics) is a set of game theory strategies. It states that the individuals in any situation will benefit the most if they do not only what is best for them individually, but also what is best for the entire group.

This equilibrium was developed by the mathematician John Nash, who was profiled in the wondrous film, A Beautiful Mind. The film gives a rather sexist but graphic example of his theory:

A group of men and women are at a bar. Each of the men wants to pair off with each woman. However, one of the women, a blond, is more attractive than the others. The question is: should each man go for a less attractive woman, or try for the blond?

The Nash equilibrium implies that no man should try to pick up the blond. Odds are they will all be rebuffed. If the men then try to go after the other women, they’ll most likely be rejected because each women will know that they were the man’s second choice. The best strategy, therefore, is for each man to try to pursue a woman other than the blond.

To sum up: the Nash equilibrium states that in any situation involving trade-offs, the maximum benefit is achieved if everyone is making the best decision they can taking into account the decisions of the others.

The Nash equilibrium has been applied to an amazing variety of areas including:

  • arms races
  • technical standards
  • bank runs
  • currency fluctuations
  • traffic flow
  • auctions

Nash’s theorem was so ground-breaking that in 1994 he won the Nobel prize in economics for his theorem. (There is no Nobel prize for mathematics.)

The philosophy of this equilibrium can be applied to information development on two different levels: within the architecture of information objects and to the information development process.

Documentation Objects

All documents contain sets of objects that can be thought of as “players” in a game. These objects include:

  • topics
  • cross-references
  • TOC entries
  • index entries
  • graphics

In addition, documents themselves form objects in a documentation set, as part of a group of related documents.

Conflicts will arise if there are two or more objects within each of these areas that are difficult to distinguish. Examples include:

  • topic with similar names, such as Overview and Introduction
  • index entries that begin with the term removing and others that begin with the term deleting
  • two graphics that describe the same thing but in a slightly different way
  • using the same term to describe different things
  • guides with similar names, for example an Administration Guide and a Technical Guide

Conflicts such as these create confusion for the end user, because they have no way of knowing which is the “correct” version. This creates an unnecessary game-like situation for the user, as they struggle to pick the winning object.

To avoid this, all documentation needs to be carefully reviewed and purged of all conflict. The end result is a series of objects that play nicely together. What is best for each individual documentation object is also best for the group of objects; the very essence of governing dynamics.

Multiple Authors

The Nash equilibrium can be applied even more directly to the information development process in a multi-author environment. Many organizations have content management systems in which multiple authors can create, edit and manage their documentation.

While such systems can create a more balanced workload, the potential for conflict is enormous. Even if the system only allows one editor at a time (a standard feature of any content management system), it’s still easy for writers to get into editing conflicts in which whoever updates last “wins”.

This is not a technical issue but a management issue. Writers must understand they are not competing against each other but against incomplete and inaccurate documentation. The end user wants relevant information, and is not interested the writers’ turf wars. As the Nash equilibrium implies, writers working on common documentation sets need to know that what is best for the group is also what is best for each of them.

There are probably few areas in life to which governing dynamics could not be applied. Therefore, the idea that “life is but a game” is far more true than we can possibly imagine.