Reverse engineering

Reverse engineering is the process of analyzing something to understand its composition and how it works, often with the intention of copying it.

A notable example is Compaq computer’s reverse engineering of IBM’s ROM-BIOS (the chips that made IBM computers work) in the 1980s. By methodically determining how the chips functioned, Compaq was able to clone the IBM PC, and produce computers that could run IBM software.

The analysis of the human genome is a more intriguing example of reverse engineering. By determining the makeup of the entire human DNA sequence, scientists hope to someday cure diseases by creating customized medications targeted to an individual’s DNA; no two people would receive the exact same treatment.

Image result for UnabomberA fascinating application of reverse engineering to communication is forensic linguistics: the science of language analysis to solve crimes. The FBI used it to identify the Unabomber, who demanded his 35,000 word manifesto be published. As a result, his own brother recognized the style of writing, leading to the Unabomber’s capture and imprisonment.

Effective communication is a form of reverse engineering. It is the process by which a communicator determines what a user is trying to achieve, then works backwards to create the information in a form that the user understands and can easily act upon. (I call this the “back-words” approach.)

All users are ultimately trying to achieve something by solving a problem. Specifically, they need to:

  • complete a task
  • understand a concept, or
  • look up something

Therefore, all documentation must solve a problem. By applying the principle of reverse engineering, we can solve these problems. In these examples, we’ll explore the problem everyone loves to hate: filing their taxes.

Problem 1: Completing a task

A user who must complete a task does not want to complete it – they want the end result. Therefore, to effectively document a task, a communicator must:

  1. Understand the end goal and the purpose behind it.
  2. Know the main steps (and any alternate steps) to achieve that goal.
  3. Document the steps as quickly and efficiently as possible using the language that the least experienced user will understand.
  4. Clearly state the end result.

Image result for tax returnApplying this to tax filing, the documentation (or the process itself) must:

  1. Recognize that the user wants to pay as little tax as possible; they don’t want or need anything else.
  2. Guide the user through the various steps, offering appropriate guidance to minimize the amount payable.
  3. Clearly indicate if the user owes an amount or will receive a refund.

Problem 2: Understanding a concept

A user may just need to understand something. For example, the tax filer may want to know about a specific tax deduction that they may be entitled to. However, even in this case, they are still trying to achieve the same goal: minimizing the amount of tax paid.

Therefore, to effectively document a concept, a communicator must:

  1. Understand the reason why the user wants to know this particular concept or idea. That is, they must understand the understanding.
  2. Describe the subject clearly and in terms familiar to the end user. There’s nothing more frustrating to a user than something that is described using terms they don’t know.
  3. Offer advice about practical steps they can take based on this knowledge, or additional resources.

Applying this to tax filing, the documentation or process itself must:

  1. Again, recognize that the user wants to pay as little tax as possible.
  2. Explain each deduction and whether the user qualifies for it.
  3. Guide the user on applying for the deduction they qualify for or explain why they don’t qualify.
  4. Offer information about additional deductions that they may qualify for.

Problem 3: Looking up something

A user may need to retrieve a specific piece of information in order to solve one of the two other problems stated, which, in turn, enables the user to achieve their goal.

To effectively enable the user to look up something, a communicator must:

  1. Organize the information to make it easy to search, using a clearly identifiable search tool.
  2. Present clear and meaningful search results, and filter out meaningless ones.
  3. Understand the ultimate reason why the user is conducting this search.

For example, if a user is claiming medical expenses, they want to know which expenses they qualify for. They would then use this information to claim these credits.

Therefore, when searching for a credit, if the user finds an applicable credit, there should be a link to the information or process that will enable them to obtain this credit. The point is that the user is not searching to find out which deductions apply; they are searching to save money.

Summing up, a user needs to:

  • complete a task: that is, DO something
  • understand a concept, that is, KNOW something
  • look up a piece of information, that is, FIND something

for the ultimate purpose of achieving a goal.

This can be further summed up as:


Reverse engineering this, we get:


This formula states that all users want to achieve something, by doing, knowing or finding something. From the user’s perspective, the achievement (or end goal) is the key. How they get to that goal is nowhere near as important as the goal itself.

Stated differently: millions of people own drills that they didn’t want.

What they wanted were the holes.




Write on, dude

Surprised expression on a baby boys face whilst getting into mischief on a laptop computer

It’s hard to work up the mental energy to write a blog entry. Writing is like exercising, eating well, or going to the dentist for a root canal: you don’t want to do it, it’s a pain in the butt, you’d prefer to put it off, but it’s good for you.

Here are four things you can do to be a better writer:

1. Make the time. This is the hardest step: to schedule time in your day, plunk yourself in front of a computer and start typing. We all have busy lives; the trick is to start small and build yourself up.

Start with one five minute session a day. Bang away randomly at the keyboard. Get used to the feeling of writing. Then, when you’re ready, increase it to ten minutes a day, then fifteen, and on on. You’ll reach a point where you’re mental flow is so strong that time vanishes, and hours pass like minutes. If you can write one to two hours a week, that will be quite a lot writing over the months and years.

2. Write about what you know and like. Write about the subjects that you find interesting or challenging. Everyone has different interests and tastes. Write about your particular “fetishes”.

3. Make connections. I enjoy seeing the connections between very different things, for example, between philosophy and technology.

What are your skills, interests or things that you are passionate about? How can you connect these? Even the act of trying to find a connection will get your mind in the creative zone.

For example, if you’re into politics and web design, write about what makes an effective political website. If art is your thing, write about how to achieve an artistic balance in your design. If you like technology (and who doesn’t?), write about how technology is influencing web design and vice versa. The combinations are limitless.

4. Know that it doesn’t have to be perfect. Many people hesitate to start writing because they don’t want to create anything that is less than perfect. The reality is that perfection exists (at most) in two subjects: philosophy and mathematics. To wait until something is perfect is to wait forever.

Yes, you should schedule time to review and edit your work, but at some point, the writing has to stop, and you’ve just got to take a deep breath and click that Publish button. Remember that any article that is written is infinitely better than a superior article that is never written.

Here’s hoping that you have “The Write Stuff”.

A New Mantra

Related imageApple has given technical communicators a new mantra.

The Apple slogan is: There’s an app for that, to market the fact they have an app for everything and then some, for their ubiquitous iPod touch and iPhones.

Our new slogan should be: There’s a doc for that, to market the fact that we can create a document for anything.

Driving a car?
There’s a doc for that.

Assembling a table?
There’s a doc for that.

Launching the space shuttle?
There’s a whole bunch of docs for that.

The Colour of Notes

Related imagePositively Autistic is a fascinating CBC Newsworld documentary about autism. Its premise is that people with autism do not really need to be cured, and that society should just accept them as they are, in the same way we accept differences in race, religion, sex and other innate characteristics.

One of the individuals profiled is Amanda Baggs, an eloquent autism-rights activist who runs her own blog. She does not speak, at least not directly. Instead, she types out what she wants to say, and then a voice synthesizer does the talking for her. Baggs also posts videos to YouTube that describe how she experiences autism. One of her videos, In My Language, has been viewed about 700,000 times.

Baggs describes how she perceives sounds, and in doing so shines a tremendous light on how all of us perceive things. Incredibly, she is able to identify various musical notes as easily as you or I can identify colours. In other words, she is able to see the exact “colour” of the note.

All this raises an interesting question: who exactly has the disability? On what basis do we say that the inability to recognize musical notes is acceptable, but the inability to socially connect with others (a characteristic of many autistic people) is unacceptable?

Clearly, the ability to identify musical notes is a gift. In fact, it is one of many gifts that autistic individuals have. Other gifts include the tremendous ability to focus on specific details, an incredible memory, and extraordinary technical capabilities. Many of the technological advances in society (from computers to cell phones) would not have occurred had there not been people at least partially on the autistic spectrum to develop them.

I’ve often said that technical writing requires a somewhat autistic personality. Technical writers are hyper-sensitive to specific words and text, just as some autistic people are hyper-sensitive to sound or colours. Whenever I see poorly written instructions, or, worse, discover that the instructions are missing altogether, it stresses me out. (Not to the point where I need to be severely medicated, but pretty close.)

As writers, we obsess not only over the words we write, but their appearance. Take the following instruction, for example:

It is important to back up your files.

That’s true, but this doesn’t really tell you what to do. How about:

Ensure you back up your files.

This is better, but it doesn’t tell you how often to do it. Let’s try:

Ensure you back up your files at least once a week.

That’s specific enough for our purposes, but how can we make it stand out a bit more? Adding one word helps:

Note: Ensure you back up your files at least once a week.

We’re getting there, but we need additional emphasis:
Important! Ensure you back up your files at least once a week.

Finally a dash of colour to this note to make it really stand out:
Important! Ensure you back up your files at least once a week.

Now, dear reader, do you honestly believe that most people would pay so much attention to a single line of text? Of course not – they have other things to do with their lives. Technical writing is a mental condition like autism, and like autism, it can be a positive thing. Learn to embrace your insanity: it positively colours everything you do.