Monday, October 30, 2017

“Perfect vs. Good Enough” – Writing Quality in the Online Age - Part 2

This is part 2 of a three-part post examining the issue of “perfection” in content creation in the online age. 

The first part, which I posted on October 10, is a column I wrote in 2001 discussing an event from 1998. (Stay with me here...)

This second part is a column that I wrote in 2009 discussing what had changed since the first column in 2001. Look for the third part, in late November, to revisit the issue of “perfection” in light of emerging trends in 2017.

In this post, I’ll list the core points of the Wired article and some ideas about their impact on technical communication. First, the Wired article…

“…It’s … the latest triumph of what might be called Good Enough tech. Cheap, fast, simple tools are suddenly everywhere. We get our breaking news from blogs, we make spotty long-distance calls on Skype, we watch videos on small computers… The low end has never been riding higher.

So what happened? … technology happened. The world has sped up, become more connected, and … busier. As a result, what consumers want from the products and services they buy is fundamentally changing. We now favor flexibility over high fidelity, convenience over features, quick and dirty over polished. Having it here and now is more important than having it perfect. These changes run so deep and wide, they’re actually altering what we mean when we describe a product as “high quality.”

And it’s… everywhere. As more sectors connect to the digital world… they too are seeing the rise of Good Enough tools … Suddenly, what seemed perfect is anything but, and products that appear mediocre at first glance are often the perfect fit.”

Two examples from the article…

·         MP3, whose audio quality is lower than the CD standard but whose greater file compression lets us cram hundreds of songs into devices the size of a pack of cards.

·         The netbook, with minimal storage and power but which is light, portable, and cheap compared to traditional laptops that have more features, most of which may go totally unused.

The examples offer “flexibility over high-fidelity, convenience over features, and quick and dirty over slow and polished” and each has altered its market or created new markets. How might these factors affect technical communication? Here are three ideas – none new but, based on my training and consulting experience, worth repeating:

·         A major change since 2001 is the appearance and partial acceptance of user-generated content for online use. “Let the engineers write the doc” has been a laugh-getter for years within technical communication but the idea keeps coming up for one good reason – the engineers (the subject matter experts) know the material. And their content has now been appearing for years in blogs, wikis, and tweets.

I don’t see user-generated content replacing traditional online documentation/help but extending it. The documentation/help will still contain stable core content but link to user-generated content in blogs or wikis containing new, changeable content. Technical communicators and user-authors form a virtual team. If you create online documentation/help but don’t link it to your company blogs or wikis, take another look.

Similarly, video and animation have been around for years but not often used because of the costs and required skills. But lower prices and simpler tools are putting video and animation into more hands – e.g. user-generated. It may be “movies” created quickly using tools like Adobe Captivate, TechSmith Camtasia, or MadCap Flare, or from video bloggers. (YouTube may also be a source. You may not find the perfect video there, but there are so many clips about almost any topic that you may find one that’s good enough. The volume of clips provides flexibility, and the material is available quickly, even if the production values may be “dirty”.)

So rather than discount the idea of user-generated content, we should be actively helping to create, organize, use, and distribute it in the first place.

·         Software-driven writing features like templates and style sheets have existed for years but are still not used as often as they should. One reason is that the settings in these control files are often not quite “right.” Something in your material deviates from a setting in the control files. You could modify the setting, but it’s often easier to set up the non-standard material by hand. The result? You get perfect content, but at the expense of losing the consistency and automation provided by the control files.

Instead, consider setting up your control files to handle your common needs and ignore or modify other needs that are too difficult or marginal to handle in the control file. For example, you might create a “first-paragraph” style with extra space above for use in hard-copy, but can you replace that style with the “body” style and live with the “good-enough” result?

So the results may lack the perfection that you got by hand-tweaking the material, but you get the good enough, quick-and-dirty convenience of bringing programmatic control to your writing tasks. (Wired made an interesting point about users coming to accept MP3 quality as the standard rather than the higher quality of CD because they used MP3 more and got used to it. As more and more readers get material online, they may come to accept online style quality as the standard.)

·         Finally, consider lowering your writing standards – not to write badly but to change the definition of quality, standardize that definition, and write to it.


Many technical communicators started in hard-copy and transitioned to online, a transition that involved some hard changes including:

·         Adding tasks once performed by other people, like editors, to the writer’s workload.

·         The speedup of the work, losing the time we might once have had to get material “perfect.”

·         The appearance of media like blogs and wikis whose need for immediacy runs counter to the idea of perfecting the writing.

Since the old column appeared, I’ve seen more and more technical communicators accept the idea of “good enough.” But many still fight it, which is a losing battle. The field has seen many changes, each fought but not stopped. This is one more. If we fight it, the change will occur but without us. That would be a shame because these “good enough” technologies and methodologies are actually fun and highly challenging.


Leah said...

Neil, say it's not so——really, a losing battle? I hate to hear that, and recently I've no less than cringed every time I've heard my manager say, "it doesn't have to be perfect, just get it out there".
How do we start to set our standards for what is "good enough"?

Neil Perlin said...


Don't call it a losing battle. Call it a reflection of reality. The problem is that perfection is like the old definition of pornography, you can't define it but you know it when you see it. But how do we write to a standard like that? And how do we justify the effort needed to reach perfection when few if any of our readers will recognize that perfection?

If I were writing exclusively for you, a professional tech comm'er, and had the time and $, I would shoot for perfection because you would recognize anything less than perfection and yell at me about it. But I've seen a number of cases over the years where the client decided that they couldn't afford "perfection" as defined by their doc group, and just needed to get the information out to the users, dangling participles and all. That's my focus.

All that said, I'll ask you... are you asking seriously how to set our content standards to something less than perfect? Because that's one of the points that I'm going to touch on in part 3.


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