When Products Become Easy to Use, What's Next for Writers?

by Andrew Oram

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People who follow the right trends will someday lead them. Such an opportunity now lies in the hands of technical writers, as the computer field moves toward standardized, graphical, easy-to-use interfaces.

For decades, human factors engineers have been threatening to put writers and trainers out of our jobs. Their idea was to make a computer so easy to use that nobody would need to read a manual. The names of these visionaries -- Englebart, Kay, diSessa, Shneiderman -- are legends in certain computing circles. Many technical writers heard of the idea in the mid-1980's from lectures and articles by Edmond Weiss.

It hasn't been so simple, of course. The designers should have known that easy interactions don't add up to easy use. Just because a little grey rectangle appears on the side of the user's screen doesn't mean that:

  1. the user sees the rectangle
  2. the user knows that it controls shading in figures
  3. the user who wants shading can click and drag the rectangle the right way.

There is a trend, nevertheless, toward making control of the computer system easier. The real shake-up is just beginning to affect writers because graphical interfaces are now becoming standard. Soon, the users will know how to use the mouse and interpret the screen as soon as they move to a new product. The dream of the human factors engineers will then come true -- the interface will become self-explanatory.

Now we writers can lift our heads, breathe deeply, and put our true talents to work! Freed from the tyranny of strange syntax and bizarre command names, we can tell readers what the computer system is for, and how they use it to improve their day-to-day work.

Using a computer requires an understanding on many levels. Modern interactive environments simplify one level, whereupon users find out that the real difficulties lie below. Now documentation provides the crucial aids that make a system usable:

Task decomposition. Users verbalize their needs in familiar terms and goals. They say "I want to get a smoother curve" or "I want the fractions in my calculations to be more precise." But making the system carry out these high-level goals is difficult. The interface has nothing to do with it. In fact, simple modern interfaces can make the job harder because they do such a good job of hiding what's really going on in the computer. It's the job of the documentation to make the tool fit the task.

Modeling. Users regularly make new and ever-greater demands on their systems. When they do, unexpected things happen. To gain control over their own systems, the users need honest, thorough documentation. We must boldly tell them, in concrete terms, what the system does with their inputs and commands.

Responsible use. This goal is the least understood and the most important. Computer users make choices constantly, with immense effects on the reliability of their systems and resulting data. Plenty has been said and written about how important it is for users to act responsibly and present honest results. But to do so, they need to understand exactly what the system is doing and where errors can creep in. So, a responsible writer has to be present before we can have a responsible user.

Yes, great challenge is in store for computer documentation. Let the designers take away the job of documenting the interfaces. Writers have more important work to do.

Andrew Oram is a technical writer at Concurrent Computer Corporation in Westford, MA. He is teaching an advanced course in computer documentation at Northeastern University as part of the University College evening program; the course explores organization impacts, ethical issues, and the effects of computer design on user documentation.


© 2001 by STC Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Originally published March/April 1991 in the Boston Broadside