Users’ Advocate: The User and the Right to Know

User and the Right to Know

If there’s anything the information age has brought us, it is the implicit understanding that information, because it is everywhere, can thus tell us everything.

So writes Will Leitch, in a remarkable essay built around, of all things, a fatal accident at a minor regional dirt track race. The accident is newsworthy only because it happens that one of the drivers involved was three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart. But that does not matter. The same essay could have been written a week later about Ferguson, Missouri. Or about whatever event we are demanding answers about the week you read this.  Leitch’s theme is simply our expectation that we should be able to know the answers to all our questions, to get the truth on any matter that interests us, and get it instantly.

He writes:

This is the single organizing principle of our age: The sense that there is an inalienable truth, and that we can find it.

Citing incidents as diverse as the Russian meteor and the Miracle on the Hudson, Leitch deplores our expectation of instant knowledge, and the invective and sometimes violence that often follows if that expectation is not instantly met. He argues that, despite the enormous advances made in information gathering and retrieval, there is still much we don’t know and cannot know. Of the dirt track accident he writes

But there is no truth here. None of us, even after the video, have any idea what happened. This is a chaotic situation, at night, with cars going extremely fast, on a track that is unpredictable…. There is a temptation to say that only one man knows, and that’s Tony Stewart, but even that’s presumptuous: The accident happened so quickly, even he might not know.

He’s right about this of course. Of this and so many other incidents, we never will know everything, never will know for sure.

But the amount that we can know, and the ease with which we can know, has increased so greatly that it has produced a sea change in our attitudes and expectations. We now expect that information will be available and easily found whenever and however we need it. However unreasonable it is, that it the prevailing social attitude towards information today.

I have an old book on my shelf called Finding Answers. Today, just about every piece of advice it contains could be replaced by “Google it.” Not quite all, of course. But even for those things that you can’t find out simply by Googling them, the way you find out how to find them out is to Google it. Want to know how to do an access to information request? What are you going to do?

I keep the book to remind me that this used to be hard.

We used to accept that information required work. Yes, you could get the information, but you expected that you would have to work for it, that it would cost your time, that is would cost you energy, that it might cost you money, and that you would have to put a great deal of research skill and leaning into the quest. Information was available, but it was not cheap. It certainly was not free.

Now we expect information to be effortless and free.

What does this mean for technical writers and content strategists?

  • Our users expect to be able to find any information they want about our products and services.
  • They expect it to be easy — that it will take no time, no effort, and no learning on their part to get the information they want.
  • They expect it to be current at all times.
  • They expect it to be on the Web.
  • They have either lost, or never acquired, paper-world information finding skills.

This last is one of those observations that tends to provoke complaints about the decline of skills and to apocalyptic wailing, a la Nicholas Carr, that the Internet is rotting our brains. But this is not really about a decline in skills, but about a change in circumstance. As our digital skills increase, our paper skills naturally atrophy. The paper skills are not adequate to our new  information expectations in any case.

This is the consequence of one technological era giving way to another. Imagine that you are lost in a forest. There is a lot of food available, but it will take both work and knowledge to find it. Our ancestors would have had the knowledge and been accustomed to the work and would have survived. Most of us would not have the knowledge or the stamina to feed ourselves and would have devoted our energies to finding a cell phone signal instead—and starved to death if we did not find one. Different skill and different solutions for different eras.

Certainly, not every user has lost their paper skills, nor that they have all acquired digital skills, or that they all expect information to be free on demand. The change took place in a generation, and there are still many refugees from the digital revolution.

But, like all refugees in all circumstances, they are not the ones spending money today. Technical communication is a commercial endeavour, and it is the digital natives and the successful digital immigrants who will be buying our products today and tomorrow.

More importantly, to continue to write and design information for the paper-skilled—the digital refugees—is to create content that is increasingly inaccessible to the modern audience, which no longer has the research skills or the patience for traditional research methods, which no longer thinks to keep the bits of paper that come in the box, and which will judge far more swiftly and far more harshly when their desire for information is not immediately met.

As Leitch observes:

Not knowing is not acceptable.

This may not be the audience we would like, but it is the audience that we have: demanding, impatient, untutored in the research skills of a bygone era. This is the audience—the customer base—that our companies have to. They have needs and expectations that our employers would do well to acknowledge and to meet. That could mean secure tech comm jobs, but only if we learn to meet the new information expectations of the digital generation.

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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