A Portable Life

“Computer” did not always mean a thing that computes; as recently as the 1960s, it actually meant a person. The US military and NASA employed human computers to perform complex mathematical calculations. As electronic computers evolved, they replaced human computers, and replaced the definition of a computer.

Image result for ENIAC

The early electronic computers were enormous. ENIAC, (pictured right) one of the earliest all-purpose computers built in the 1940s, was 1,800 square feet and weighed nearly 30 tons. (Not exactly a laptop.) It took an army of people just to keep it running.

Later computers (such as mainframes) in the 1960s also required many individuals to operate. Starting in the 1980s, the personal computer took off. Today, most people own several computers in various forms. We have therefore evolved from:

  • many people for one computer
  • one person for one computer
  • many computers for one person

The primary computer types today are desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones. All of these are “personal” computers, because the owner is highly connected on a personal level to each device, as though it was a physical extension of that person.

If you think I’m exaggerating, watch the look on a young person’s face if they have misplaced or lost their smartphone; it’s not quite an amputation, but pretty close. So much of a person’s life can be on a computer it quite literally becomes a part of them.

We can categorize computers as:

  • Non-portable: desktops
  • Highly portable: smartphones
  • Semi-portable: laptops & tablets

Given how personal “personal computers” are, it’s not a huge leap to correlate the type of computer to the type of person: non-portable, highly portable and semi-portable.

The Non-Portables

Non-portable people are the stable, steady stalwarts of society. They have established homes, travel little if at all, and are consistent, reliable, dependable and trustworthy. They may not always be creative, but are able to work with creative people to get the job done. They are conservative, resistant to change and comfortable in their routines. They may be perceived as cold and uncaring, but deep down can have big hearts. They just don’t wear their heart on their sleeve, but keep it safely tucked away, just in case. Their motto is: “If it ain’t broke, why even think about fixing it?”

The Highly Portable

Highly portable people are the dreamers and drifters. They move frequently, rent but never own, love to travel, and frequently change careers. At their worst, they may be unstable and flighty, but are also very friendly, outgoing and full of new and original ideas. They are always challenging the status quo, and in doing so, get the world of its comfort zone and move it forward. Their motto is: “Everything needs fixing.”

The Semi-Portables

Semi-portable people reside between these two extremes and are therefore more difficult to define. They can be very open and creative, and at other times closed and subdued. They excel as mediators and diplomats, bringing the other two types together and bridging the gap between them. They are the middle ground, the average, the in-between. Their motto is: “Let’s look together to see if it needs fixing.”

With AI (artificial intelligence) now developing at an astonishing rate, we are approaching the age where computers will be able to think and reason as people do. In what will be one of the greatest ironies of technological history, computers may again become persons. When that happens, your smartphone will indeed be “a portable life”.

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Rounding up

Related imageRounding is a mathematical process in which a complex number is replaced with a simpler one, such as 1.343 rounded to 1.3. It makes numbers easier to communicate and work with. However, rounding applies not only to math but to all aspects of our existence.

Starting with the essentials (matter, space and time ): all matter is composed of atoms, which in turn are almost 100% space. If you could remove all the space between all the atoms of all the skyscrapers in New York city, they would fit within a matchbox. Why then do we perceive matter as solid? It is because our senses are simply not acute enough to detect the spaces. If we were much smaller (or more sensitive), we would see the spaces. Instead, we “round” the spaces up, filling in the gaps and thereby perceive matter as solid or liquid.

Similarly, we round space. Again, because we cannot perceive vastly small spaces, we round up to the nearest perceptible unit, usually about 1 mm, depending on the situation.

Finally, we round time. When we say it takes 20 minutes to do a task, we generally don’t mean exactly 20 minutes but rather 20 minutes, plus or minus a few minutes. Even for events that we measure precisely, again, because of our perceptual limitations, we cannot perceive tiny amounts of time, such as one ten-thousandth of a second. We round to the nearest second, minute, hour or even day.

We also round our senses. No two people perceive colour, sound, smell, taste and texture the same way. As with matter, space and time, we perceive these things within a certain perceptible range. It would be impossible, for example, to differentiate two nearly identical colours, one .000001% brighter than the other; we round up the colours and see them as identical. You are rounding the text displayed here. Your eyes and mind fill in the pixels this text is composed of to see the letters and words.

Now, if such fundamental and seemingly objective aspects of our existence as matter, space, time and our basic senses are rounded, how much more so the less objective and more ethereal aspects.

Concepts, thoughts, ideas and feelings are constantly “rounded”. In fact, because these things are non-physical, it would be tempting to say that math does not apply and that they cannot be “rounded”. One could argue that it would be ridiculous to say that you could like someone 12% more than someone else, or that a political party is 14% better than another. That may be true, but you can measure aspects of these things. For example, like-ability by itself is not measurable, but surveys where each person rates or ranks their feelings to the other is. The moment you introduce math or statistics, you can have rounding.

Rounding therefore, is the process of taking something and replacing with something less precise but easier to understand and perceive. In that sense, it is one of the purest forms of technical communication. For it is the job of a technical communicator to take something complex and simplify it so that it can be practically understood by the reader.

It is a constant struggle to determine the degree to which content should be simplified. Simplify it too much, and you lose valuable information; simplify it too little, and the content becomes inaccessible. Because of rounding, no two technical communicators will ever document something the same way.

May all your content be well-rounded.

 

 

The 22 senses of technical communicators

The Five Known Senses

Humans have five senses, right? Well, not exactly. It’s a common belief that the only senses are sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. But scientists now know that we have so many more senses including:

  • equilibrioception – the sense of balance, which keeps you from falling down
  • thermoception – the sense of hot and cold
  • proprioception – the sense of where your body parts relative to other body parts; this sense enables to touch your toes with your eyes closed 
  • nociception – the sense of pain
  • chronoception – the sense of the time

Note that these are just senses that have names. There’s practically an infinite number of unnamed senses, including a sense of:

  • hunger
  • thirst
  • exhaustion
  • suffocation
  • pressure
  • danger
  • morality
  • intuition

Technical communicators have even more senses, 22 to be exact:

Senses related to basic informational elements:

  1. fontioception – the sense of the correct font to use
  2. titulioception – the sense of the correct heading to use
  3. blancioception – the sense of the correct use of white space
  4. graficioception – the sense of when to include an image in a document, and the formatting of that image
  5. referencioception – the sense of when and how to use a cross-reference

Senses related to major informational elements and sections:

  1. definitiocepetion – the sense of how to describe a concept, term, or idea
  2. laboriocepetion – the sense of how to document a task
  3. diagramioception – the sense of how to create a meaningful diagram
  4. glossariocepetion – the sense of the terms to include in a glossary

Senses related to the structure of a document:

  1. indicioception – the sense of what terms to index and how to correctly structure an index
  2. partitioception – the sense of how to break up a large block of text into separate sections, or a large document into sub-sections
  3. lexioception – the sense of what text to conditionalize
  4. recylioception – the sense of what text to reuse or single-source
  5. darwinioception – the sense of how to structure information using DITA, the Darwin Information Typing Architecture XML language
Senses related to the reader:
  1. humanioception – the sense of the typical reader of the document
  2. intellengencioception – the sense of the reader’s intelligence
  3. curiosoception – the sense of how the reader will search for information

Senses related to general communication:

  1. practicaliocepetion – the sense of what is practical and meaningful information, and what is not
  2. presentioception – the sense of what information is current and up to date
  3. imperfectioception – the sense of information that is incomplete or inaccurate
  4. obfusicatiocepetion – the sense of a lack of clarity or meaning
  5. simplicitocepetion – the sense of simplicity in communication
The most important sense of all: clairitariocepetion – the sense of clear, effective communication

Sugar, Salt, Fat

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us is remarkable exposé on the food industry written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Moss. The processed food industry is a monster, with over a trillion dollars a year in sales. Sugar, salt and fat are together more addictive than any one of these ingredients alone. Moss describes in great detail how the food industry systematically manipulates these three ingredients to get consumers hooked on their products. As a result, many North Americans are obese and have multiple health problems, including an increase in the occurrence of diabetes in children.

Food scientists use cutting-edge technology to calculate the “bliss point” of their products. This is the precise ratio of sugar, salt and fat that the body is programmed to seek out and is combined in such a way as to make the food very tasty.

Documentation does not contain any food ingredients, but can be sweet, salty, or fat. Sweet documents are ones with much style, but little substance. They are dripping with exotic and unreadable fonts. They have dreadful colour schemes, such as a bright red font on a deep purple background. They may have endless animations or even sound, further distracting the reader from obtaining the pure information they require. They are a sugary and sticky mess, dripping with confusion and disorder.

We all know that salty food makes us thirsty. Salty documents are ones that make the reader thirst for more information. They do not answer the questions that the reader was asking, or only partially answer them. They may answer the question but in an unclear way. They may have the information the reader seeks but are structured in such a way that the reader cannot find it. Salty documents leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth.

Fat documents are bloated. They contain too much information and too many words. They are over-documented, over-engineered and over-worked. They are a 200 page user guide when a 6 page quick-start guide would have sufficed. They are often written by engineers and marketers who have no concept of minimalism. Instead, they practice “maximalism”, the deranged belief that more words are better than fewer. The only cure for this disease is systematic and ruthless editing, along with a healthy dose of self-control.

Sugar. Salt. Fat. What type are your documents?

The Doc Particle

Never has something so small attracted so much attention. In July of this year, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, claimed to have discovered the oddly named Higgs-boson particle. (And it only cost them $10 billion to find it.)

 

This tiny particle is also known as the God Particle because it could explain why things exist.  Discovery of the Higgs-boson particle helps prove the existence of something even more bizarre: the Higgs field. This is an invisible force field which covers the entire universe, allowing subatomic particles to have mass. Without mass, electrons, protons and neutrons wouldn’t be able to form atoms, and therefore nothing would exist.
This discovery could lead to some amazing things. If scientists could actually control the Higgs-boson particle, we could travel at the speed of light and change matter. Science fiction would become science fact.
The idea that there’s a force holding everything together is fascinating. We think that things just are – that they exist in a simple, natural state. The fact that things may not be so simple, that it actually requires a force to hold everything together and give a structure to all matter, is mind-blowing.
But the question for technical communicators is this: what is the force that holds all content together? By content, I mean any organized collection of information that forms a document, help system, website,  or any other form of visual communication.
Whatever this force is, it must be as powerful as the Higgs field, for without this force, content would descend into a universe of chaos, with thousands, if not millions, of elemental pieces of information flying off in every direction.
Specifically:
  • Topics would have no context or structure.
  • Concepts would have no meaning.
  • Indices would include non-existent entries.
  • Tables of content would cease to exist.
  • Tasks, the backbone of many user guides, would describe inaccurate or irrelevant steps, and would omit key steps.

One shudders to think how it would all look, but having an engineer write a user guide gives a fair approximation.
So just what is the force that holds all this content altogether? The answer is so obvious that you would not even suspect it – it is technical communicators. We are the force that holds content together. We create it, shape it, fine-tune it, and then re-shape it again until it forms a living system of information that is practical and meaningful to the end user.
We have seen the God Particle of content, and it is us.

A Transcendent Man

If I could meet any person alive today, it would undoubtedly be Raymond Kurzweil. One of the most brilliant thinkers on the planet, he is a distinguished scientist, inventor, author and futurist.

His inventions include:

  • optical character recognition (OCR)
  • text-to-speech synthesis
  • speech recognition technology
  • sampling musical keyboards

If that weren’t enough, Kurzweil accurately predicted:

  • the collapse of the Soviet Union
  • the defeat of the best human chess player by a computer
  • the rapid growth of the Internet, and its move to a wireless format
  • the increase in popularity of cell phones, and their shrinking size
  • the move of documentation from paper form to computers and the Internet
  • the ability to add sound, animations, and video to documentation

Because of his track record, Kurzweil’s other predictions are worth paying attention to. They are based on the Law of Accelerating Returns. This law stems from Moore’s Law stating that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles about every two years. As a result, computing power is increasing exponentially and will have an enormous impact on science, including nanotechnology and biotechnology. He predicts it will be only a few decades before some astounding achievements are made, including:

  • the “source code” of DNA will be hacked, enabling human life to be extended using nanobots: small programmable robots that repair the human body at the molecular level; whenever we need to heal ourselves, we simply download the latest update into our bodies
  • a computer that fully simulates the complexity of the human brain, allowing a person’s mind to be uploaded to a machine, thereby achieving immortality
  • artificial intelligence systems that make moral decisions and interact fully with humans
  • the ability to send and receive physical objects electronically

Looking further into the future, Kurzweil predicts:

  1. The line between people and machines will blur as machines become more human and humans add more technology to their bodies.
  2. Machines will grow to be billions of times more intelligent than they currently are.
  3. Machines will eventually become smarter than people in a history-shattering event called The Singularity. 
  4. Human-machine hybrids will create giant supercomputers from asteroids, planets, stars and whatever other matter they can get their hands on (if they still have hands).
  5. Computers the size of planets will be built; Earth itself will be transformed into a giant computer.
  6. The entire universe will eventually evolve into a new life form: a massive super-computer, transforming matter and energy into a giant thinking machine.

Kurzweil explores this vision of the future in the documentary Transcendent Man. When asked if god exists, he sublimely says,”Not yet.” However, I would say that the Singularity has already arrived; well, at least a portion of it has.

Writers are instructed to write what they know. This applies especially to technical writers. If we don’t know what we’re writing about, the result is a document where the reader doesn’t know what we’re saying.

Beyond writing what we know, we write what we are. We create documentation based on how we perceive it would be best understood. Because everyone’s perceptions are different, no two writers use the exact same text to describe the same thing. All writing is a reflection of the writer.

If we write what we are, then we are what we write. Our writing needs to be clear, logical, organized and methodical; so do we. But if we are what we write, then what are we?

We are, or at least are connected to, the very documentation that we create. All the material that we have ever written, whether personal or professional, is a part of us, and we are a part of it. The merging of people and machines has already occurred: it is called documentation. It is the product of a human mind in electronic form. We live forever through our writings, as long as there is a computer to host them.

We have seen our documentation, and it is us. But will there ever be a time where technical communicators are no longer needed?

Not yet…

A Relatively Unique Document

It’s quite amazing when a theory that’s over than a century old continues to make the news.

European scientists claimed to have discovered subatomic particles (neutrinos) that can travel faster than light. If it’s true, it would contradict a major portion of Einstein’s 1905 theory of special relativity, which states that nothing can travel faster than light. Other scientists are therefore claiming that this new discovery must be wrong.

Now I’m no scientist, but saying that something is wrong because it contradicts the current model is not science. All science is built on updating the science before it. Rules are meant to be broken in order to form new rules, because science is a draft that is never completed.

For now, though, Einstein’s theory of relativity remains an excellent model of the universe. It’s a complex and often very technical theory. Fortunately, I belong to a field which strives to make the technical easy to understand.

Because relativity is so vast, this article will examine it in two parts. Part one will explore motion, gravity, and light. Part two will examine mass, energy, space, and time.

Ride the relative rocket

Have you ever been on a subway train, looked out the window to see the train across from you moving, only to realize later that it was your train that was moving and that the other train was still, or possibly vice versa?

This illusion provides a glimpse into one of the first laws of relativity which states that all motion is relative; that there is no such thing as absolute motion.

We perceive that the Earth is motionless, but in fact it rotates at about 1,700 km per hour. In addition, the earth is part of the solar system, which in turn is part of a galaxy, which is a part of the grand universe.

All of these vast areas of space move in different directions. We can’t sense the movement because we’re moving right along with it. It is therefore impossible to tell if something is not moving, that is, if it is in an absolute state of rest. It is only when we are separated from the thing in motion that we can actually see the motion. From our perspective, we are still and everything moves around us, or we’re moving and everything else is still. Motion is relative to the perspective of the observer.

Users move through information at different rates and in different ways. Some users quickly skim through a guide, rapidly jumping from topic to topic. Others move more deliberately, carefully studying each new concept or task.

Each user believes they are moving at a “normal” speed. A slower user observing a faster one would judge the faster to be moving too fast. Conversely, the faster user would observe the slower as moving too slowly.

Both users would be wrong because there is no absolute standard for the rate of informational motion (“infomotion”) through a document. Infomotion (the rate at which a user moves through and consumes information) is relative to the perspective of the user.

Gravity: You move me

Another principle of relativity states that gravity is the same as acceleration. You can begin to understand this if you take a ride up in an elevator. As the elevator accelerates towards the top floor, you feel heavier.

Astronauts experience this effect much more dramatically when they blast off into space. The force of the rocket accelerating upwards creates a g-force effect, pushing the astronauts down into their seats. Their weight temporarily increases, as acceleration mimics the force of gravity.

There’s actually a formula for equating acceleration to gravity: it is 32ft2.This represents an increase of 32 feet per second, each second.

For example, if you were floating out in space, and stepped into a special elevator that accelerated upwards 32 feet the first second, then 64 feet the next second, then 96 feet the next second and so on, this would mimic the effect of gravity. Gravity, therefore, is a naturally occurring (and much more convenient way) of ensuring that we don’t all fall off the Earth.

There are different ways users can learn how to use or understand something. They can learn it naturally by using the product. Alternatively, they can employ “accelerating learning” through formal training or documentation.

Learning through documentation may not seem as natural as learning by using the product itself. However, a good technical communicator will it make appear as natural, and as effortless, as gravity itself.

But officer, I was only going 299,000 km a second…

According to relativity, nothing can go faster than light, which travels at about 300,000 km per second (km/s). This is the natural speed limit for all matter in the universe, and is represented in physics by the letter c.

Much information today is stored, submitted and consumed in an online format. Because information is stored electronically, it does, quite literally, travel near the speed of light. Therefore, the speed limit for light is also the speed limit for the transmission and updating of information.

However, from the user’s perspective, it doesn’t really matter how quickly  information is transmitted because users perceive it as instantaneous. The much more relevant speed is that which the user can find and understand the information they need. We can call this the Communication Velocity, and can also represent it with the letter c. To distinguish this from the other c, we’ll label it Cv.

We can calculate Communication Velocity as:
the number of relevant concepts (Nrc) understood by the reader divided by a specific time period

or:
Cv = Nrc / T

The objective of the technical communicator is to make Cv as large a number as possible. To do this, you must ensure the end user can easily to locate and understand the topics they require in as short a time period as possible. Recognize however, that just like the speed of light, there is a limit. What that limit is is a product of your skills and the level of your end user.

Got a light? Absolutely.
Imagine that you can throw a ball at a speed of 10 km/h. You get into a car moving at 50 km/h and throw the ball forward. How fast would the ball travel relative to an stationary observer on the ground? We’d simply add the two velocities together (10 + 50) to calculate that the ball would be traveling 60 km/h.

Now imagine that you’re on a rocket traveling 100,000 km per second (km/s). You shine a beam of light forward. Knowing that light travels 300,00 km/s, you would think that an observer measuring the light beam would again simply add the velocities together and calculate that the speed of your light beam was 100,000 + 300,000 = 400,000 km/s.

But you would be wrong.

The observer would measure that your light beam was travelling 300,000 km/s. In fact, they would get the same result no matter how quickly or in which direction you or the observer were traveling. The result would always be the same: 300,000 km/s. The speed of light is absolute, regardless of the speed of the observer and the light source.

1There are two absolute “speed limits” in information development:

  • the speed at which an effective document can be created
  • the speed at which a document can be fully comprehended

Now, it’s always possible to increase the speed (that is, reduce the time) to develop a document. But the document will suffer, and will no longer be effective. The absolute minimum time required to develop a document varies, but that minimum time does exist.

The same is true for our end users. A user can rush through a document, but then they will not understand it well enough to use the product effectively. For each user, and each document, there is absolute minimum amount of time required for a user to understand that document.

Read part two.

Another Relatively Unique Document

Welcome to relativity, part two.

In part one, we looked at relativity’s laws regarding motion, gravity, and light. Part two will explore the connections between mass, energy, space, and time. 

It’s all about ME (Mass and Energy)

Everyone knows e=mc2, Einstein’s famous equation uniting mass and energy. This formula indicates that a small amount of mass contains a tremendous amount of energy.

1Atomic weapons graphically illustrate this: a small amount of unstable, radioactive material is forced to rapidly decay releasing a huge amount of energy in a massive explosion. Nuclear power plants do this on a kinder, gentler scale, but the principle is the same: mass contains energy.

To state it another way: mass (or matter) is solidified energy. These are the two states of existence for everything in the universe.

Information development also consists of two states: (subject) matter and energy. Energy is comprised of the effort required to develop information, including: researching, interviewing, analyzing, testing, writing, editing, updating and managing. All this energy is then channelled to produce a piece of subject matter.

It can take a tremendous amount of informational development energy to produce even a small amount of information. The end user never sees the energy that goes into producing a guide. But technical communicators do, and that’s really what matters.

Time for some space

Relativity states that space and time exist together in a single frame of reference known as the space-time continuum, or simply spacetime. Spacetime is made up of the three dimensions of space, and a fourth dimension of time. Einstein showed that extremely massive objects can bend not only space, but also time, showing that the two are inextricably linked.

All informational objects occupy a point in space, the space being the medium the object resides in: a printed page, a PDF, a website, and so on. But these objects also reside in time: when a user closes a book or turns off or away from the computer displaying the information, the object ceases to exist, if only temporarily.

A guide itself requires space to be usable, specifically, white space. White space allows the information to breathe, improving usability. Documentation also requires time for an information developer to create and update the drafts. In fact, the highest quality drafts result when enough time passes between reviews. This extra time gives the information developer and reviewers a fresh perspective. It is a necessary space of time – a spacetime.

Be small. Slow down. That’s heavy, man.

If we could observe an object traveling near the speed of light, we’d see three incredible things happen:

  • the object would shrink in size in the direction it was moving
  • the mass of the object would increase
  • time would slow down for the object

On the last point, if the object was a clock, we’d see it moving more slowly as time passed at a slower rate. However, from the perspective of the object, time would be passing at a normal rate. This effect is known as time dilation.

1To illustrate the power of this, imagine if you were traveling near the speed of light and looked back on Earth using a powerful telescope. You’d see everything moving more rapidly on Earth, as though it was on fast-forward. You might later return having only experience a few days passing from your perspective, but returning to an Earth where hundreds, or even thousands of years have passed – a one-way time trip into the future.

These three remarkable transformations have been confirmed by science. They also explain why relativity states that nothing can travel faster than light. If an object could travel the speed of light, it would shrink to nothing, time would stop completely for it, and its mass would be infinite. To accelerate something to the speed of light requires an infinite amount of energy, which the universe simply does not have.

The incredible shrinking communicator
As an informational object is developed, it moves through the information development process. It starts out large in size and scope, consisting of many internal notes, documents, functional and design specifications, emails, phone calls, interviews and other meetings.

As the object accelerates through the process, much of the excess information is edited away. The information object shrinks in the direction of its motion, arriving at its final form: practical, relevant, and smaller.

Massive changes
Information mass does not refer to the size of information. Although we can speak about “massive” amounts of information, this does not describe the quality or usability of the information. A massive amount of information is often unusable because the user cannot find what they are looking for.

Instead, mass refers to the substance, practicality and meaning of an information object. The greater the mass, the more valuable the object is to the end user.

Again, as an information object moves through the development process, its mass increases, even though its size decreases. In fact, it is precisely because its size has shrunk that its mass (informational value) has increased, because all the non-relevant pieces have been vaporized.

Slow down, you move too fast
The slowing down of time does not apply directly to information objects, because these objects cannot experience time – only people can. Therefore, the time dilation effect applies to the people involved in the documentation process, primarily the technical communicators.

When a technical communicator moves an object through the information development process, they are intently focused on the development of its content. The communicator’s perception of time changes. Were we to observe the communicator, they might even appear motionless, as though time had stopped or slowed down for them. However, from the perspective of the communicator, time progresses normally. It is only when they stop moving through the process (when they take a break) that they realize that many hours may have passed.

The end user experiences a similar distortion of time when they are so focused on reading a topic that they also lose track of time. However, the effect is not as pronounced, because it requires much more energy to create information that to consume it. When we create information, we imagine all the paths it might take, and will often experiment with different wordings and formats. The end user only sees the one final, simple path.

Who broke my Time Machine?!

Returning now to the original discovery of particles that can travel faster than light: one of the reasons scientists are skeptical about this claim is that if such particles existed, they would travel backwards in time. These types of particles have already been imagined and are called tachyons.

Backwards time travel leads to all sorts of strange paradoxes. The classic one involves going back and time and killing one of your parents before you were born. If your parent is dead, then how were you able to be born and go back to kill one of your parents?

Technical communicators face a similar paradox with their end users. Users are constantly looking for information. However, often users don’t know what they are looking for. But then if they don’t know what they are looking for, how will they know what to look for?

The solution involves not tachyons but taxonomy, the art and science of classifying information into a format that a user can understand and access. This means:

  • giving topics clear, self-descriptive names
  • creating a TOC that groups topics into a logical hierarchy

and, most importantly,

  • creating an index that can read the mind of the end user by imaging all the ways they might look up a topic

Proper informational taxonomy eliminates the docs paradox.

My Crazy Relatives
It’s not surprising that documentation has much in common with the theory of relatively. All documentation is relative, because each user brings to each document their own perspective, knowledge, experience and bias. No two users see the same document the same way. Each document, therefore, appears differently relative to each user.

As we’ve seen, it’s impossible for almost anything to travel anywhere near the speed of light, including our users. But with clear documentation, we can enable our users to see the light.

In doing so, our users will travel, not at the speed of light, but the speed of enlightenment.

1

Here kitty, kitty (or maybe not)

I’m not a cat lover, except for Schrödinger’s cat, a mind-bending paradox proposed by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935:

Imagine a cat is placed in an opaque box with a container of radioactive material and a vial of deadly poison gas. Quantum mechanics states there is exactly a 50% chance that an atom in the radioactive lump will decay and release an electron. If this happens, the electron will strike the vial, causing the gas to leak out and kill the cat.

Now, because we can’t know for certain if the gas has been released, the cat exists in an uncertain state: it is both alive and dead at the same time, which is of course, impossible. But it would theoretically be true, if we could build such an experiment.

Schrödinger was trying to show the absurdity of quantum mechanics, one of the strangest areas of physics. Quantum mechanics assigns probabilities of existence to subatomic particles, leading to strange worlds where a single particle can be in two places simultaneously, or in no place.

Quantum mechanics may represent the truth at a subatomic level, but, as Schrödinger’s cat shows, it becomes absurd when applied to the visible world. Instinctively, we want to believe things exist in a certain state. Even the most ardent cat-hater would rather know the cat is alive than not know either way.

The lack of certainty is at the core of this paradox. I have previously shown that a document can exist in a quantum state. That is, the state of a document can be unknown, for example:

  • a user may have expanded or collapsed the sections of an online help file
  • if there is more than one version of a document, we cannot know which version the user is reading
  • if the documentation system supports it, a user may have annotated certain topics – we cannot know which ones or what the user has written on them

However, what should never be uncertain is whether the user is uncertain about the contents of the document. Whatever topic the user reading, we must be sure that the user completely understands it.

How do we create such certain documentation? The same way as with any other user-friendly product: by showing it to as many users as possible and seeing if they understand it. Documentation testing creates guides that are comprehensible rather than reprehensible.

A user cannot simultaneously understand and not understand a topic. A user either comprehends your document, or they do not.

To put it succinctly: there can be no Schrödinger’s User Guide.

A few good elements

The ancient Greeks believed that everything in the world was made up of four basic elements: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. This concept was so powerful it lasted even through the Renaissance. Interestingly, the first three elements correspond directly to the three states of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. The fourth element, Fire, corresponds to energy. Given that matter and energy are the two main elements of the universe, the ancient Greeks were not far off in their view of the world.

Aside from the physical aspects of these elements, there is the meta-physical. Earth, being solid, represents stability and tangibility – that which can be touched, seen and known. Water, being liquid, represents change and movement. Air is invisible and therefore less tangible – we cannot see it directly but can see its effects. Air is also the medium required to support Fire, and life itself. Fire is pure energy that can change matter from one state to another. It can thaw ice, converting it to liquid water, then to steam, a gas.

Aspects of these four elements exist in technical communication. Earth is the visible, stable portion of a document – the portion that can be seen and which rarely changes. A printed manual is forever Earth –  never changing until replaced by a newer version.

With more documentation now online, information has shifted in form from Earth to Water – ever flowing, ever changing, and increasingly customized and shaped towards the specific needs of the end user.

Air is the medium through which documentation is delivered. The printed page, the monitor, the smart phone, the tablet – the medium is not the message but is the air in which it lives. Air is also the white space around all words, text and images, allowing the words to breathe. With no medium or no white space, communication would be starved of life.

Fire is the energy that flows through the mind of a technical communicator, allowing them to shape, bend, twist and change the words and images they yield. It is the transformative power that a skilled communication craftsman uses to alter the form and substance of information. For a spectacular of Fire, see the CSS Zen Garden, where stylesheet magicians forge communicative works of art, as swordmakers used to forge metal in fiery furnaces.

Air. Fire. Earth. Water.

Note the words formed by the first letter of each element: AFEW.

All you need is “a few” elements to create a universe of communication.