Diversity Trumps Ability: Five Consequences for Tech Writers

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One of the things that the Web is teaching us is that diversity trumps ability. That is, a diverse group of people yield better solutions than a group of experts. You can find an explanation of this, along with lots of juicy links to more evidence, in this article from Chris Dillow’s blog, Stumbling and Mumbling. Here is the gist of Dillow’s post:

Experts, even though they are experts, don’t have all the information, and they tend to have a fixed way of looking at things founded in the conventions of their field. Experts, in other words, all tend to be drinking from the same trough. A diverse group of people brings different information and different talents will come up with a more diverse set of solutions, and it is quite likely that the best solutions will be among these rather than among those dreamed up by the experts. Even if the experts have a better chance of being right than any one of the diverse crowd, they don’t have as good a chance as the crowd as a whole. If you want more, read Dillow.

I said that this is one of the things that the Web has taught us. This does not mean that it is something new with the Web. But the Web has given us the means to gather and study diverse views and thus to discover that diversity does indeed trump ability. As the Cluetrain Manifesto observes, hyperlinks subvert hierarchy. The wisdom of crowds exposes the expert’s fallibility.

In many ways, the expert is a social construct of the pre-Web age. In an age where communication was a slow and laborious process conducted by shipping slices of dead tree around, the only way to assemble expertise in one place so that decision could be made was to create experts. Today we can gather expertise on many subjects without the need for individual experts.

Even where the complexity of a field requires deep study, and thus the development of expertise, a diverse group of experts in different fields still outperforms the experts in a single field, and the Web can dynamically assemble a diverse colloquium for you at a moment’s notice. As David Weinberger observes (Too Big to Know), the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room. Stack overflow is smarter than any of the people who contribute to it.

This is why it is not surprising the people prefer to Google for answers to technical questions rather than to reach for the manual. Even if the manual is the best written, best researched, best edited, most accurate piece of content describing your product, it is not as good as the diverse set of content returned by a Web search.

While the reading public may not all be aware of the (diverse) research that shows that diversity trumps ability, they are certainly more exposed to a diversity of voices, and are increasingly seeing experts humbled by their missteps. As the New York Times reports, Alarmed by Ebola, Public Isn’t Calmed by ‘Experts Say’. Being the New York Times, it mostly blames this on Republicans, though it does admit that the CDC does bear some responsibility for the problem:

Even defenders of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the agency has hurt the case for trusting scientists, by making overly broad assurances early on, or changing guidelines on handling the disease, indicating that the earlier ones were not strict enough.

It’s not that experts are worse at this stuff than they used to be, of course. They never did have perfect knowledge, perfect talents, or perfect answers. But the Web is showing us their fallibility in a way nothing has before. No where is this more evident than in the constant back and forth over whether every imaginable foodstuff or lifestyle choice is or isn’t bad for us. (See, for instance, Four Popular New Year’s Resolutions That Science Says Don’t Work.) Experts used to abuse and belittle each other in obscure academic journals. Now they do it on daytime TV and popular websites.

People like to hear many points of view. Often, alas, they keep shopping until they find a view they like, rather than being diligent for truth. But few stop at the first expert they find. Diversity trumps ability.

What does this mean for technical writers? A number of things:

1. The manual is not the default place to turn

We use to write manuals on the assumption that they were the default place to turn for information on the product. If the user had a problem, they would read the manual, and that was all there was to that.

Or at very least, the manual was the first thing they would turn to. They would look elsewhere only if the manual failed them.

It is unclear if this was ever a good assumption, but it certainly isn’t today. Today, Google is more often the first place they turn to (or sometimes YouTube, Wikipedia, StackOverflow, or some similar forum for their area or practice). If your manual gets read it is going to be because a page from it turns up in a Google search. (Not the manual—a page from the manual. Google search returns pages, not sites, not books.) Readers know, whether by instinct and experience, or because they have read books like The Wisdom of Crowds, that diversity trumps ability.

2. Making a better manual won’t help

We should definitely do all we can to produce better content. But producing better content is not going to make us the user’s exclusive source. We should certainly strive to organize our content better, but better organization is not going to ween people off Google. People don’t Google because it is easier than navigating a hierarchy (though it is). They Google because diversity trumps ability.

That genie is not going back in the bottle, no matter how good we make our stand-alone information products. Nothing we can improve about them will solve their fundamental lack of diversity.

And thus we should not organize our content as if they user’s journey begins and ends in our content, but as if some part of their journey passes through it.

3. We should welcome content contributions from a wide variety of people

Yes, it is true that user-developed content, and content developed by other people in our organizations, is often not as good quality as what we can produce, and often is not organized as we would organize it. But it is very clear from the reception of this content that users find it valuable. We may, as we boast, have greater technical communication ability than our peers and our customers, but diversity trumps ability, and it is helping users get their jobs done.

Adapting ourselves to the Web is not just about learning to write for online or format content for mobile. It is about learning to accept our role as one voice in the choir, as one contributor to a valuable diversity of experiences and points of view. In a world where diversity trumps ability, the capacity to embrace, develop, and contribute to diversity may be our most valuable ability.

4. We need to make sure our voices are heard too

We may not have a monopoly on the user’s attention anymore, but that is not to say that we have nothing to contribute. If diversity trumps ability, we can still use our ability to contribute to the diversity. The room may be smarter than we are, but the room is smarter with us in it than with us huddled off by ourselves in a separate (dumber) room.

We need to get our content on the Web. And we need to get our content on the Web in a form that makes it an effective contribution to the diversity of voices on our subject matter.

Ideally, in fact, we want our content to be a seed pearl that gathers a diversity of voices around it.

5. Diversity in tech comm is a good thing

Technical communication has always been a diverse profession, with people coming from many backgrounds. Only a small proportion of practitioners have formal training in tech comm. Some of the best practitioners are people who retired from the fields that the products are sold into. For example, there are a lot of former programmers writing API documentation.

Much as some of us might like there to be uniform training and uniform certification for tech writers (not to mention uniform hiring standards), in a profession whose task is to help people solve problems, this diversity is actually a significant benefit. As a diverse group we are far more likely to come up with workable answers than if we were a more homogenous group of tech comm experts. Diversity trumps ability, and that starts at home.

Mark Baker

Mark Baker helps organizations improve the impact of their content by focusing their design, writing, and production processes on producing content that matches the way people seek information on the Web today. He is the author of Every Page is Page One: Topic-based Writing for Technical Communication and the Web. He blogs at everypageispageone.com. You can reach him through his company, Analecta Communications Inc.

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