Lessons from Getting Lost while Driving

The start of 2016 has special meaning for WordShop Services, since the business is starting this year. In the spirit of starting anew, this blog entry will describe how I start writing online help.

Most of us have heard the phrase that we need to analyze our audience when writing, but we hear less about which audience to focus on. When I think about people who read online help, I think about moments when I needed help, especially when driving in a new city. Of course, GPSs have helped with this, but most of us have experience with asking for directions.

Most of the time, people are very willing to give directions. About half of the time, they start with, “Oh, it’s very easy to get there.” I’ve learned to get worried when instructions start that way.

I’ll say again that the person giving directions really is being generous and helpful, but it’s unusually easy to give confusing directions. For me, the discussion can go something like:

Generous person giving directions: All you have to do is take this road for about a mile and turn right at the stoplight. You can’t miss it.

Me: That sounds great. Is it the only stoplight?

Generous person giving directions: Oh yeah come to think of it, there is one more, but you just go straight through it.

Here’s another one.

Generous person giving directions: All you have to do is take this road for about a mile and turn left after a curve. You can’t miss it.

Me: Thanks, but the road looks a little curvy. Which curve should I look for?

Generous person giving directions: The big one, that goes off to the right.

Both cases make me think about how many wrong turns it takes to get lost, while driving or reading about online help. Of course, the answer is one. Both cases also show how the generous person is giving directions he considers simple, but he has underestimated his own knowledge and overestimated mine.

Of course, one solution is for me to ask more questions, when getting directions. That can work, but it can be surprisingly difficult to get people to explain what they know in simple terms. That’s one reason many generous people are prone to say that it’s easy to drive somewhere, instead of going through the challenging process of taking apart their understanding and explaining it.

In cognitive psychology, this involves a concept called automaticity. Our minds want to quickly automate common tasks, and slowing down those tasks is difficult or even uncomfortable. This also explains why parents can become impatient teaching their kids how to drive a car, how kids can become impatient showing their parents how to use a new phone, and how online help is sometimes unhelpful.

As a technical writer, I sometimes hear well-intended subject matter experts say, “Oh, it’s easy.” I respond by thanking them for the comment, asking a question, and usually, by asking a few follow-up questions. In the end, we create online help that new users can understand and include a reference section for experts.

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