Keeping it simple: it can get complicated

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
— Albert Einstein

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
— also supposedly by Albert Einstein

If you’re on Facebook, I’m sure that you’ve seen the memes that go something like this: “tell a sad/scary/happy (whatever) story using only four words.”  It’s hard to do, isn’t it?

Welcome to the world of technical communication.  One communication tenet that I constantly preach — and you’ll hear me talk about this time and again in my presentations — is the KISS principle: “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”  Ask anyone involved with technical writing, documentation, or professional communication, and I’ll bet that most, if not all, of them will mention the KISS principle in some way, shape, or form (maybe not in those exact words, but you get the idea).  The goal of communication, after all, is to transmit information from a sender to a receiver.  If the message being conveyed is easy enough for the receiver to understand, so much the better.

However, here’s the irony: making things simple is difficult!

How often have you been asked to write something for knowledge transfer, and ended up with something that was nearly incomprehensible?  (Don’t be afraid to admit it; hey, I’ve done that, too!)  Whenever we’re tasked with writing documentation, our tendency is to explain every little tidbit of knowledge that’s in our head.  When that happens, we end up writing a huge paragraph of black text that nobody — and I mean, NOBODY, including yourself — wants to read!  That is not conveying information; that is obfuscation.

So how do we go about making things simpler?  For starters, I discuss some ideas in my previous articles about designdocument frustration, using examples, and talking to non-technical people.  I won’t rehash them here; I’ll leave it to you to go back to read those articles.

Additionally, here are some more thoughts that might be helpful.

  • Include only information necessary for the task at hand.  Avoid the tendency to include every last detail.  As a former manager was once fond of telling me, “don’t tell me how to build the clock; just tell me what time it is!”  I also remember a time back when my father was first learning about PCs.  He kept asking me questions about how the CPU and memory worked.  I finally said in frustration, “you don’t have to know how an internal combustion engine works in order to drive a car!”
  • Put yourself in the reader’s shoes.  When I wrote one of my very first technical documents, I said to myself, “okay, let’s say I’m the night operator who needs to use this document.  What do I want to see that would help me?”  That mindset resulted in a very successful document.  Reader empathy goes a long way.
  • I’ve said it before, and it’s an old but true saying: a picture is worth a thousand words.  A good illustration can convey a concept that’s difficult to do in words.
  • Avoid using long (or multiple) words when a simple (or single) word will do.  I think this is self-explanatory.
  • Voice matters.  Below are two sentences, one using active voice and one using passive voice.  Question: which one is easier to read?  Advice: try sticking to active voice.
    • Active: “John mowed the lawn.”
    • Passive: “The lawn was mowed by John.”
  • Formatting is a big deal.  Check out documents that you found easy to follow.  Pay particular attention to paragraph length, whitespace, headings, and so on.

People — myself included — say that the easier you can make things, the better.  The fact is, we humans only have a limited attention span, and we neither have the time nor the patience to comprehend complex information.  Simplifying things helps — but it’s also hard to do.  If you ever believe you know a lot about a concept, try explaining it to a child — and see for yourself how easy it is.

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My first podcast interview!

About a week ago, I received an email from Carlos Chacon of SQL Data Partners inviting me to take part in a podcast.  This was my first such request, and I jumped on the opportunity.

The podcast recording took place last night.  My topic was along the lines of “writing and communication: why it matters to data professionals.”  It was a lot of fun, and I very much enjoyed talking to Carlos and his partner, Steve.

The podcast should air sometime in March.  It will be posted on their ‘blog.  When it does, I’ll make sure that I post a link to it!

Why design matters

“A user interface is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it’s not that good.”
— unknown

There are two elevators in the building where I work, including one that doubles as a freight elevator — it has front and back doors for access.  This particular elevator has a bank of buttons shown in the photo below.  The buttons for the rear door are denoted by the “R” next to the floor number.

elevator_buttons

Here’s why these buttons frustrate me.  Quickly, tell me which open and close door buttons work for the front and rear doors!  Yeah, I can’t tell, either!  You would think that the upper buttons control the front and the lower ones control the rear, but you can’t discern that from the way it’s laid out (and I’ve found that it isn’t necessarily the case).  I have had multiple occasions where I’ve tried to hold the door open for someone rushing to catch the elevator, and ended up hitting the wrong button.

Had these buttons been properly laid out, the open and close door buttons would both been placed under each respective door button column — i.e. the open and close door buttons that control the rear door should have been placed under the buttons marked “R,” which would clearly indicate that those buttons are used for the rear door.  That would make sense, wouldn’t it?

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been frustrated by a product simply because the user interface was poorly designed.  I would expect every hand in the room to be up.

Don Norman, an academic researcher considered to be an expert in usability design, talks about this phenomenon in his book, The Design of Everyday Things (disclosure: at the time of this article, I have not read this book — yet).  One very common example involves doors.  How many times have you come across a door with a handle, leading you to think you need to pull it to open the door?  Yet when you try it, it turns out that you need to push, not pull it, to open.  It’s extremely frustrating, and it happens more often than you think — so often, in fact, that it even has a name: a Norman door.

If you don’t think good design isn’t a big deal, there have been documented cases where poorly designed interfaces resulted in a significant loss of life.  I did a Google search for “disasters resulting from bad design,” and the results were startling.

This subject is of particular interest to me, speaking as someone whose job revolves extensively around technical communication, technical writing, and front-end development.  In my line of work, design and layout are a big deal.  I have seen many examples on the job of horrible documentation and bad interfaces — and poor design was a major factor.  I mentioned in an earlier article that I came across illustrations in a company document that were completely useless.  Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but if they’re not properly used — and yes, there is a wrong way to use them — they can be worth exactly zero words.  Likewise, one of my current projects is working on how to make an internal corporate social network work for my department.  I’ve discovered that I have a love/hate relationship with it; while I have no problem with the concept, the execution leaves a lot to be desired.  One of the most basic questions I have with this system which it fails to answer — and which should only be answered by the interface design without having to look up instructions — is, “where am I supposed to begin?!?”

Interfaces exist in just about every facet of our lives, including, but not limited to, application front-ends.  Good sensible design must be involved in creating them.  More often than not, they’re just “thrown together” without any thought as to how they should be laid out and how they are to be used.  The consequences of poor design abound.  In the best of cases, such as with Norman doors, they are just annoying.  But in the worst cases, they can have disastrous and fatal results.