atw: Media and preference: the unravelling thread

  • From: "Geoffrey Marnell" <geoffrey@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <austechwriter@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 12 Mar 2009 08:45:47 +1100

Hello austechies,


A good dinner-party conversation starts at A and moves through the alphabet;
a good argument shouldn't. So let me clarify what my point was and what is


It was not an argument about language

Language is, and has always been, in flux. Some usage that many of us were
taught in primary school as wrong is now quite conventional: that is, it is
accepted by the majority and passes unremarked. Like it or not, some (but
certainly not all) the language practices of today's younger folk will make
it into conventional language at some time, and at that time, technical
writers will adopt that usage. Yes, we write for our audiences, and if we
want to maximise the efficacy of our communication, we don't (and won't)
write in ways that users will find quaint, artificial, archaic or stilted,
even if at some time those ways were conventional, expected, and considered
by many to be correct, right and inviolable.


But I was not suggesting we distance ourselves from the language of younger
folk (or of any group).


It was not an argument about paper versus online

Yes, I used the paper versus online issue in my initial posting. But that
was simply to provide some concreteness to the argument (and also because it
was the only relevant, media-specific scientific research I have been able
to find on the issue of media choice). But to focus on this issue is to be
distracted by the trees in the forest and not to see the forest. Perhaps
presenting the argument in abstract logical notation might have prevented
this particular side-thread ;-).


It was an argument about media choice and reader preferences

In abstract form, here is what I was getting at: if medium A (whatever that
might be) is better at communicating information (however judged: by
comprehension tests, performance success, learning outcomes or whatever)
than medium B (whatever that might be), should this be a consideration that
overrides widespread reader preference for medium B in some situations? I
thought so, and gave cases where death and injury are possible as ones where
user preferences should play second fiddle.


Some considered this conclusion unexceptional, and I was glad to hear that.
I was hoping that most technical writers would find it so. But Tony's
argument in his Southern Communicator article suggested that reader
preferences should take priority, and his claim, in a subsequent posting to
this thread, that readers should be king seems to back up this


But the argument remains largely theoretical until we have some rigorous way
of determining that one medium "is better at communicating information" than
another. And that was the point of my second question (also lost in the
trees, to some). A lot more research needs to be done on this. And it goes
both ways. Note that I didn't ask what has Tony done to prove that wikis,
podcasts, mash-ups or whatever are better at communicating than user guides
and online help. I asked what has our profession done to establish
scientifically rigorous ways for determining that one medium is more
efficacious in such and such circumstances than another. Cognitive
psychologists have produced numerous studies to show that paper is superior
to online in comprehension testing. This is only a start for us. It gives us
a bare minimum to go on. In order to avoid outright subjectivity in our
choice of media (if communicative efficiency, rather than secondary issues
such as cost or ease of maintenance are primary) we need some criteria for
assessing the relative merits of all the media at our disposal. And the onus
falls on all of us, not just on Tony. Readers of Tony's article might
conclude that he has to prove to us the benefits of a wiki (or whatever)
over, say, standard online help. But the argument goes both ways. Those who
think that standard online help provides more effective communication than a
wiki (as I do) need to prove the point. The problem is that there is scant
research available to inform our decisions.


Topics anew

Tony's paper is rich in discussion points. Here is one: let's suppose (for
the sake of argument) that many users don't read product documentation.
(Tony says that no-one does, but this is clearly an exaggeration.)  Do they
not read product documentation because of the media we use to present it to
them (which seems to be Tony's point)? Or do they not read product
documentation because it's product documentation? Many of us, on buying,
say, a new mobile phone, start playing with it straight away, without
consulting the accompanying documentation. And many of us are satisfied with
the features we discover for ourselves, and never encounter or play with the
less obvious features (features described in the product documentation).
Will such folk start consulting product documentation if it were delivered
in other media (a wiki, podcast, YouTube movie, or whatever)? Or will they
continue doing what they have usually done: learn by doing. So perhaps the
issue is not the medium but the sort of information the medium contains.




Geoffrey Marnell

Principal Consultant

Abelard Consulting Pty Ltd

T: +61 3 9596 3456

F: +61 3 9596 3625

W:  <>


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