Tuesday, October 10, 2017

“Perfect vs. Good Enough” – Writing Quality in the Online Age

Part 1


In August 2009, Wired Magazine published an article entitled “The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple is Just Fine” by the Wired Staff in the Gear column, 8/24/09, at https://www.wired.com/2009/08/ff-goodenough/.  Its theme – “cheap and simple beats perfect almost every time.” That article reminded me of a column I wrote in 2001 (“’Perfect vs. Good Enough’ – Writing Quality in the Online Age”) that discussed why technical communicators needed to change our definition of quality for the dot-com era.

On rereading, the 2001 column still seemed relevant. So, this column, part 1, presents the core points from the old column from 2001. Part 2 will revisit the 2009 column to present the core points of the Wired article and how they might apply to technical communication. Part 3 will revisit the issue of quality in the emerging age of taxonomies and semantic markup.

First, the old 2001 column, with my comments in italics.

Background


I typically get one or two calls per week from prospective clients or people looking for writers with certain skills. Three years ago (1998), I got a call from a dot-com looking for a “content provider.” It was the first time I’d ever heard that title so I laughed and said “So you’re looking for a writer?” and was taken aback when the caller vehemently said “No! We don’t want a writer.”

I asked why. The answer – “… writers get too focused on perfection… we don’t have time for. If we wait until the material is perfect, our competitors will beat us to market. We do not need it perfect; we just need it good enough.”

I mentioned that conversation often. Two people used it as the basis for presentations in the Bleeding Edge stem at the 2001 annual (STC) conference – one discussing the issue from a writing perspective, the other from a tools perspective. Here, I discuss it from two other perspectives – trends and standards.

Trends


Four major trends affect the issue of writing quality:

·         Time-to-market is getting shorter.

·         Editorial positions are being cut back or eliminated in many companies.

·         Single-sourcing is becoming increasingly complex.

Single-sourcing isn’t new. If you used RoboHelp to create WinHelp and hard-copy in 1995, you were single-sourcing. But today’s single-sourcing technologies work best with rigorously structured content. We can no longer get away with “winging it”.

By supporting “good enough” as opposed to “perfect”, isn’t winging it exactly what I am calling for? But it’s not winging it if you write to a standard, just that that standard may call for “good enough.”

·         New competitors are entering our field.

Technical writing was once unglamorous and fairly low-paying. Today, companies are starting to view content – including documentation – as a strategic asset. That shift has attracted consultants looking for new business. But technical writers also want that work.

Outsourcing is a new competitor. Technical writers are upset over the perceived lower quality of outsourced material, and lost jobs. But consider the business perspective. If outsourced material has 50% of the quality but is written at 25% of the cost, a company may decide it’s a worthwhile tradeoff.

What are the effects of these trends?

·         Shorter time-to-market means less time to write perfectly or fix stylistic inconsistencies. (Without editors, there may be no one to fix or even notice those inconsistencies.) So we need to define the material’s look and style before the project starts. We need standards and consistency at a human level.

·         Increasing single-sourcing complexity means that consistency and simplicity are key to getting our material into a form for re-use. We need standards and consistency at a structure and format level.

·         Consultants often use formal methodologies to do their work and help sell their services. We need standards at the business level.

Defining A “Perfect vs. Good Enough” Standard


Few companies have formal writing standards. Even those companies that do often don’t use them. There seem to be two reasons for this.

·         There’s a lot of creativity and subjectivity in writing, so how do you define “good”?

·         Many writers dislike tools that measure writing quality. This may be due to a reluctance to have a creative process measured by machine, bad experiences with a tool, or antipathy toward a tool’s vendor.

But setting documentation standards can let us do two things:

·         Determine how to change our processes to compete with the new entrants in the “content” field and participate in emerging markets and niches.

·         Define measurable standards to help justify why technical writers should do the work, or at least participate in it.

These standards should do three things:

·         Establish a baseline. What is “perfect”?

·         Define acceptable and measurable deviations from the baseline. Formalizing such deviations – a maximum acceptable percentage of passive voice, for example – will help improve consistency.

·         List and describe tools, especially third-party tools, that let us measure the baseline and deviations.

These standards could be created in two ways.

·         Each company defines its own baseline, deviations, and tools as part of its style guide. However, many companies don’t have the time to do this.

·         An organization, such as the STC, could define a “perfect” baseline standard and make it available to members to use as is or to define their own deviations.

Summary


Because of the nature of writing, our profession has always accepted a subjective definition of quality. But changes in the market and technologies are starting to undermine that viewpoint. We’re going to have to confront this issue at some point. Now would be a good time, while we have time to do so thoughtfully and deliberately.

The old column ended here. In part 2, I’ll look at the core points of the Wired article and some ideas about their impact on technical communication.