Jakob Nielsen Comes to the Sun Microsystems Editorial Forum
By pauldavies on Sep 25, 2007
If a week is a long time in politics, a fortnight must be an eternity in the blogosphere. Consequently, it seems a little odd to be writing a blog post about an event that occurred two weeks ago, especially as, once again, I find myself undone by my technological conservatism: While I was furiously scribbling with pen on paper, Jennifer McGinn was already typing up her blog and linking to relevant content.
As I have mentioned before, one of my extracurricular activities is to chair the Sun Microsystems Editorial Forum. A couple of weeks ago, Jakob Nielsen came to speak to a combined session of the Editorial Forum and Sun's Software Information Products Group (IPG). Jakob is a former Distinguished Engineer at Sun and one of the leading experts on web usability issues, including documentation types and their usage on the web.
Jakob's talk was about recent research he has done on the relative value of writing articles compared with writing blog postings. Jakob's talk was also a continuation of the conversation with the Sun technical publications community about how to move Sun's technical documentation into the new millennium.
People hunt for information like wild animals hunt for food
Jakob began his talk by introducing the concept of information foraging, which was developed at the Palo Alto Research Center (previously Xerox PARC) by Stuart Card, Peter Pirolli, and colleagues. Information foraging is based on the use of mathematical models to describe the behavior of people collecting information on the web. These models suggest that people hunt for information on the web like wild animals hunt for food: In both situations, the hunters are looking for the maximum return on their efforts.
- For wolves hunting in the forest, the maximum return on their efforts comes from hunting small rabbits, which are easier to catch than large rabbits.
- For people hunting for information on the web, the maximum return on their efforts comes from reading short articles, which are quicker to read than long articles.
So, it would appear that short is generally better, and that perhaps, short blog postings are better than in-depth articles.
One exception to the rule that short is better
When people care enough about a topic to require in-depth information about the topic, the value of long articles increases. For example, the value of long articles increases for people such as:
- Doctors who are looking for the complete list of foods that might kill a patient with a particular condition
- System administrators who are trying to find out how to get 400 impatient users back online
Time that doctors or system administrators spend reading long articles from start to finish is repaid with interest because they don't need to spend time searching and retrieving a large number of short articles to get all the information that they need.
Structure aids search
Jakob suggested that search engines are reasonable at, but not brilliant at, conveying the following information about a web page:
- What the web page is about
- How important the web page might be to a reader
However, search engines are less good at conveying the usefulness of a web page, as users who were searching for information about the need to speed up page downloads but found only information about the Need for Speed video game will testify.
Good information architecture, coupled with writing that is optimized for the web, helps search engines convey the usefulness of a web page. An inverted pyramid structure that puts the most important information at the top of the information hierarchy and at the top of each page helps users quickly determine whether a page that is returned by a web search is actually useful to them.
A blog is a stream of consciousness
Jakob described blogs as a stream of consciousness: What was posted yesterday is forgotten today and by next week will have been pushed down by newer postings into the archive, where it will be lost forever.
Richard Friedman said that blogs are most valuable as reportage and as a source of referrals to more in-depth information elsewhere.
Geertjan Wielenga suggested that the problem of retrieving old information from a blog archive could be addressed through providing a table of contents for the topics in the blog. The blog as book, if you will.
John Domenichini (I think) suggested that a tag cloud could also address the problem of retrieving old information from a blog archive.
Another person wondered whether reliance by a corporation on a strong presence by an individual in the blogosphere could put the corporation's brand at risk. If the person and the brand become strongly associated and the person then leaves the corporation, might not the brand be diminished as a result?
Blog postings are most useful as newsletters
In the context of technical documentation, blog postings are most useful as newsletters. To remain effective as newsletters, content gardening of blog postings is required. However, the need for currency in blog postings leads to a shortage of links in blog postings, which militates against content gardening.
Good product support helps sell products
Jakob observed that good product support helps sell products by building long-term relationships between suppliers and customers. A critical component of that support is product documentation that customers can rely on.
In product documentation, task orientation gives better search results because users are already familiar with the words that describe genuine user tasks.
Wikipedia is not as good as it is made out to be
Jakob stated his opinion that Wikipedia is not as good as it is made out to be. He acknowledged that Wikipedia does have the open-source benefit of easy correction of factual mistakes by a large community of contributors.
However, according to Jakob, Wikipedia does suffer from the following shortcomings:
- The combination of poor writing skills and a lack of editorial control often leads to rambling articles.
- Contributions to Wikipedia reflect the knowledge and interests of the contributor.
Wikipedia's problems seem to stem from the fact that the encyclopedia lacks the kind of strong central authority that exerts quality control over the work of the Linux crowd. The contributions of Wikipedia's volunteers go directly into the product without passing through any editorial filter. The process is more democratic, but the quality of the product suffers.
I also saw an analogy with contributions from users to documentation for software products: Users write about what they know. So, some common use cases might not be covered in a documentation set that is comprised solely of contributions from users.
Business to business suppliers should avoid the latest fads
Jakob cautioned business to business (B2B) suppliers such as Sun against the latest fads. The B2B sales process is usually much longer and more complicated than the business to consumer (B2C) process, and purchasing decisions are not normally taken by one person alone.
Streaming media have their place, but they shouldn't be ubiquitous
Jakob acknowledged that streaming media can be useful in some situations, for example:
- For overviews
- Where control over the linear flow of information is needed
- Where sound and movement convey the information much more effectively than words, for example, in hardware maintenance procedures
However, imitations of streaming media include:
- Poor search. Only the index tags that are assigned to an item streaming media can be searched, not the actual content.
- Linear information flow. In text, users jump around (so to speak) because they don't read: they scan. Streaming media are unsuitable for learning where the learner is self-paced.
How users consume information will change, but not as much a we might think
David Lindt asked whether youths who are growing up with facebook, myspace.com, and other social networking sites have different expectations for online information from older generations. Might they not expect personality and right to reply in their online information? Jakob replied that when these youths have matured and are doing the types of jobs (say, system administration) that adults are doing now, they are likely to act in much the same way as adults do now.
Jakob did acknowledge that the 40–year olds of the future will probably consume information differently from 40–year olds now, but not as differently as we might think. He also cautioned that we cannot predict how people will behave in the future. We can only observe how they behave now.
Personality might belong in documentation sometimes
After the meeting broke up, I managed to speak to Jakob individually and to thank him for talking to the Sun writing community.
I also managed to ask the question I had not been able to ask during his talk: Does personality belong in documentation and other instructional information?
I cited the Virgin Atlantic Safety Video as a rare example of where the injection of personality actually increases the effectiveness of the information. This video uses cartoon animation, comic-book style characters, and humour to convey serious and important information. This combination certainly worked for me. The first time I saw this video, I was already an experienced flier with other airlines. However, the style and tone encouraged me to pay sufficient attention that I actually learned something I didn't already know.
Jakob and I concluded that the injection of personality was effective in this instance for the following reasons:
- The information is being delivered to a captive audience with time on their hands.
- As most people in the audience believe they are familiar with the information already, what might otherwise be a distraction actually causes people to pay attention.
- The information is not intended to be acted upon when it is delivered, but remembered and (in the worst case) recalled if necessary.
Of course, the personality in this video is not the personality of the individuals who created it. Rather, this video reflects the corporate personality of Virgin Atlantic, which commissioned the video.