Become a Better Writer: Explain More

The essence of technical writing is explaining. Whether you’re writing an introductory tutorial or a massive reference manual, your goal is always to explain something to the reader. It follows that to be a better writer, you should be a better explainer. And as with any skill, you get better with practice.

Take opportunities to explain things to people. Remember that guy at the gas station asking for directions? Take a few minutes out of your day to help him. Think about his frame of reference. Will he be able to recognize local landmarks? Does he know which way North is? Think about the different ways he could accomplish his task. The route you would take isn’t necessarily the best route to send him on.

Explaining things to people will help you understand how others might think. You get used to the things you know, and it’s sometimes hard to articulate everything to somebody else. You might leave out steps that seem obvious to you. The more you explain things, the better you will become at anticipating gaps in your explanations.

If a colleague asks you to explain your work or your decisions, do it. Don’t treat it like a challenge or a distraction. Explaining will help you better understand the subject: the best way to learn is to teach. And it will help you create things that make sense to other people.

Try taking things a step further and writing instructions for things in life. Sure, it could be about complicated technology, like programming your VCR. But you can write instructions for low-tech things too. If you like to cook, write instructions for one of your favorite meals. Then ask somebody else to cook from your instructions. Remember that terms that are familiar to you might be lost on your reader. Does your reader know the difference between simmer and sauté?

By explaining things through instructions, you practice explaining without immediate feedback. Face-to-face instruction is wonderful, but it’s not a luxury you have when writing documentation. You have to take your skills in explaining things and put them to use in an environment where you can’t see confused facial expressions or answer questions.

Make a habit of explaining better in everyday life, and you will find you’re more able to create things that other people actually understand.

Embedded Help

Silke and I have an old Archos DVR.  I’ve never been extremely happy with this device, but it gets the job done.  Last night I recorded the Lost season premiere.  Instead of scheduling a recording, like I usually do, I just started a recording immediately, expecting it to keep recording until I hit Stop.  Instead, it stopped on its own after an hour and fifteen minutes.

Wanting to know why, I checked the built-in manual.  The Archos manual is a 79-page PDF file that you view on-screen.  You can view about half a page at once, and the scrolling is slow.  It doesn’t automatically advance to the next page when you scroll past the bottom; it takes three button presses to do that.  And it takes it about three seconds to render a page.

No matter how good the content is (and, to their credit, I did find the answer), this is a complete failure of a delivery mechanism.  This got me thinking in general about best practices for help embedded in set-top boxes, appliances, mobile devices, and other systems with limited interaction or screen space.

I’m sure it’s no surprise that I think the best thing in this case would be topic-oriented help.  A device like this almost certainly needs a printed setup manual, but beyond that, people are mostly going to look for specific answers.  And they’ll lose any printed material you give them, so the best place to put the help is on the device.

Devices like this present some unique challenges.  Things we take for granted in the desktop world aren’t necessarily so elsewhere.  Any UX people with experience in mobile or embedded devices could probably talk my ear off about this.  (Please do, by the way.)  So what kinds of problems are there?

  • Disk space is often limited.  My Archos has a hefty 80GB hard drive.  That’s huge by embedded standards, but tiny by desktop standards.  Help files take up space, especially once you start adding figures and screenshots.
  • Screen space is limited.  Applications usually run fullscreen, and that would include your help viewer.  The fact that you can’t view the help and the helped application side by side can really affect the way you write.
  • Another effect of limited screen space is that there often isn’t enough space to put lots of context-sensitive help buttons in the UI.
  • Interaction is cumbersome.  Mobile devices almost always use a touch interface these days, and for a lot of things that’s very powerful.  But set-top devices that use your TV usually just use a rocker on a remote.  That’s a terrible substitute for a mouse.  And text entry without a keyboard is never fun.

I don’t buy into the notion that desktop systems as we know them today will die any time soon.  But it’s clear we’re going to see more and more of these sorts of devices in our daily lives.  So I’m very interested in how we can provide better user assistance in this area.

It looks like there are a couple of related talks at the upcoming WritersUA Conference.  Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend one of them because I’ll be presenting Mallard in the peer showcase.

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States
This work by Shaun McCance is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States.