I’m not a fan of webinars, since they’re usually nothing more than a glorified sales pitch. They’re presented as best practices—e.g., “How to best present information to users”—but after a few minutes it becomes obvious that the best way to present information to users is to buy the presenter’s product. Not exactly what I was looking for.
That was not the case with a series of three webinars I attended a few weeks ago, A Cognitive Design for User Assistance. Written and presented by Ray Gallon, technical communicator, instructor on Information Architecture and Content Strategy at Paris Diderot University, and author of the very interesting blog Rant of a Humanist Nerd, this presentation was by far the most stimulating I have attended.
The first webinar in the series, Users become learners, explains how we need to see our users as learners and how we must apply ideas from cognitive development theory to the design and execution of user assistance.
This blog post summarizes at a very high level what I took away from this great presentation, but I highly recommend that you listen to the recording of this presentation on Adobe’s website (see Ray’s blog for the details). It’s an hour very well invested.
The concepts: Cognition and Context
As writers, we often think that the documentation gives meaning to the product, but it’s actually the other way around. The product gives meaning to the documentation. Without the product, a manual has no meaning. You can read the best user guide ever written on a product, but until you have worked with the software, the documentation is too abstract to be meaningful. Users learn about how to use a product by doing something and making connections.
This goes a bit against what we’ve been told in the past years: Tasks and concepts must be separated. In fact, DITA provides two different types of topics for tasks and concepts, implying that these two types of information should not be mixed. But if you don’t know why you are doing something, how can you learn to do it?
The solution: Double embeddedness
The solution is what Ray Gallon calls “double embeddedness”:
We want user assistance that will:
And the beauty of this approach is that DITA is the perfect vehicle to implement double embeddedness. In his presentation, Ray demonstrates a user assistance system in which:
(Image copyright: Ray Gallon. You should watch the presentation to get the full benefits of the demo)
The demo also implemented progressive disclosure, which recommends the following:
I was so inspired by Ray Gallon’s presentation that I met with my development team yesterday to present his findings and recommend that we apply them for this new product we are working on. We spent part of the afternoon brainstorming how to best apply these principles in our product (I work with great developers!). We came up with a different DITA implementation, and I hope to present it here when we have fully implemented it.
I love my job. :)