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Headfirst/Creating Passionate Users Weblog

Today I discovered two very insightful weblogs by veterans in the technical publishing industry.

First Joseph B. Wikert from Wrox has a weblog about publishing trends called Average Joe. I’ll be catching up on his posts over time. Also, a great User Experience group weblog called Creating Passionate Users by some programmers/usability people who wrote books for Oreilly’s new Headfirst series. I’m definitely intrigued by their posts and their insights into human psychology.

Some posts by Kathy Sierra that jump out: Tip for Building Online Community: Be Friendly!

On how Younger Brains View the World:

Younger brains–and by younger I DO NOT MEAN THE LENGTH OF TIME THE BRAIN HAS BEEN AROUND; I mean the brain that was developed in the more visually-rich environment–have a stronger sensitivity and preference for visuals. () So what are the implications? It’s obviously not as simple as just “add graphics” to whatever your product or service is. But it is an orientation. In our case, we did just that. We took a computer programming text book and added visuals to increase understanding, retention, and attention (three different things, requiring three different types of visuals), because that’s what brains want. We drastically changed the text-to-picture ratio, and we believe that just doing that alone would have made the big difference.

My comment: it’s not just a preference for graphics, it also has to do with display capabilities of prevailing technologies, force of habit, and perceptions of what is “normal.” Teenagers now show photos and all sorts of multimedia content freely. It’s a given. For older generations, it’s still a “Look I’m sharing a movie!” mentality. The fact that books on tape and mp3s make it easier to listen to stories makes us prefer the more portable way to consume information. I’d much rather read the book on European history than to hear the Teaching Company’s version on it. On the other hand, I can listen to the Teaching Company while driving, something which otherwise would have been dead time. I tend to reserve book reading for only the most demanding of reading subjects (poetry, programming books, etc).

Also worth mentioning is context. In many contexts, finding information amidst graphically intense content can be a real pain. If you’re trying to learn something for the first time, fine. But for reference, graphics can be distracting. Documentation needs to provide simple intuitive views of information, and graphics reduce what can appear on a page. Some of what she’s suggesting can also be acheived by simple tables and graphics when these devices aid in understanding. I write technical documentation full time, and believe it or not I spend a lot of time trying to decide if the context justifies a chart or screenshot. Screenshots, by the way, can be very difficult to maintain for technical documentation. Often they simply illustrate points the user would have figured out on their own anyway. Here are my guidelines for using them:

  1. Are they easier to understand than conventional presentation?
  2. Do they show types of information that cannot be easily described?
  3. Do they help explain to the user how to achieve tasks?

One type of graphics I’m a big fan of is animated demo’s. Sometimes seeing a power user work with software can teach a user much more quickly than any sort of written tutorials. Note that this does not necessarily imply the need for flash demo’s. Live demonstrations can be equally effective or useful.

See also: If you’re over 35, do you have a clue? and Instructional Strategies & Roger Schank and the Art of Giving Instructions (as applied to horse training). : Here’s what someone giving instructions should always mention:

  1. How to know when you’ve done it wrong.
  2. How long it should take.
  3. Key milestones… what you’ll see along the way.

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