With context, I can see a lot

I’m passing time in Terminal C at Newark Airport, and way across the concourse a baseball game is on TV. From this distance the screen is tiny — in fact I can see only about two-thirds of it — and I can’t hear anything.

Distant TV screen at the airport

There, in the middle arch, is my baseball game.

Yet I can enjoy the game, simply because it’s baseball — a game I’ve watched since I was a kid. Even though I don’t know the players or the score, I have plenty of context for this game I’m eavesdropping on.

Similarly, one of the best things we can do as technical writers is to supply our readers with information that fits the context in which they’re reading.

Peering at the tiny TV screen, I recognize the words on a player’s uniform: East Carolina. I heard on last night’s local news that East Carolina would play Houston today for the championship of a conference whose name I don’t remember. Sure enough, the other team’s uniforms are red. Must be Houston.

I don’t know any of the players on ECU or Houston. From my vantage point I can’t tell the inning or the score. I don’t even remember the name of their conference. Still, I can see a lot:

East Carolina’s pitcher is a lanky lefthander with a nice, smooth motion. I watch him freeze a batter with a good breaking pitch — not because I can see the ball, but because I see the batter’s reaction. Now the batter is headed back to the dugout walking the same dejected walk of every batter who strikes out, from Little League to the World Series.

Years of watching baseball have supplied me with context. It’s the same with the people who read our technical content. When the content fits their context, they can make sense even out of information that’s new and unfamiliar. But information that doesn’t fit their context isn’t even information. It’s just data, with no meaning at all.

How can we help our readers fit information into context?

Use familiar terms. If the reader knows something by a certain name, use that name. This is no time to break out your thesaurus. If the reader is accustomed to the metric system, for heaven’s sake use metric measurements.

Use diagrams and illustrations that are consistent with each other in appearance and content. If possible, use diagrams and illustrations that look like ones the reader is already familiar with.

Compare new concepts to things the reader knows. John McPhee, about whom I wrote recently, is a master of this.

As I finish writing this article, dear reader, I realize that it needs to fit into your context. You might not care about baseball, or about my ruminations on the game. So I go back and rewrite the introduction, so that right away you’ll see what the article is really about. How’d I do?

What else can we do to fit content to the context in which our readers consume it?

2 thoughts on “With context, I can see a lot

  1. Mark Baker

    It’s a great point, Larry, and it highlights one of the things that makes communication fundamentally difficult. Communication certainly works best when it fits the context in which the reader is reading (it might be fair to say that it does not work at all unless it does so), but since different readers read in different contexts, it is pretty much impossible to make any one text work well for a wide variety of readers.

    What you say about having learned to watch baseball as a kid resonates with me because I was commenting to someone the other day that, having come to North America at the age of 11, I never really learned to watch North American sports. That distant baseball game would have been just visual noise to me. Curiously, though I haven’t watched soccer for decades, except an occasional world cup game, my brain still knows how to watch soccer. Obviously a skill learned early and never lost.

    I don’t think there is any way that baseball could create a context in which I could now learn to watch it. I remember the abortive attempt of some TV network to make hockey intelligible to more Americans by electronically highlighting the puck. It did not help, and was scorned by Canadians and Americans from winter states who learned to watch the game as kids. The truth is that the puck is often invisible on TV, but a hockey fan who has learned to watch the game always knows where it is.

    What this tells me is that while it is important to do all the things you say to try to help reach the user in their context, we should also respect the fact that all content today is consumed in the context of the Web, which means that if your content is baffling to a reader, they can very easily switch to a channel showing something more familiar. We can no longer behave as if once the reader has opened our content they are committed to it. They have a million channels and a remote control, and they are not afraid to use it. We need to design for a multichannel universe and respect the wider context in which our content is embedded.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Mark. I appreciate your perspective on being a “native” watcher of soccer rather than baseball. It underscores your point that different readers bring different contexts. Perhaps, because all of today’s content is consumed in the context of the web, we can’t hope to align our content with every reader’s context. But we owe it to our readers to try, by learning as much as we can about them and their contexts — whether they’re (figuratively) soccer watchers, baseball watchers, hockey watchers, or something else entirely.


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