Being meaningful is an essential, but elusive feature of good technical communications. Yet being meaningful in technical communications is just as essential as being correct and clear, concise or consistent: Understanding how and why communication is meaningful can help you to make your documentation more effective and to make your product more useful.
What is meaning?
Information theory suggests a hierarchy of information which proceeds from data at the bottom via information and knowledge to wisdom at the top. For example:
- Data is the sheer fact that the Microsoft Office 2007 software has an “Office button” icon in the upper left corner.
- The information is that this icon gives you access to functions such as opening, saving and printing a file helps you with generic functions.
- The knowledge is that this functionality has replaced the File menu you’ve been used to. This adds meaning and supports your active experience.
- The wisdom might be in the affirmation that nothing lasts. Or that Microsoft has flipped-flopped when they abolished something as sensible as the File menu – only to bring it back in Office 2010…
So meaning occurs at the knowledge stage in this hierarchy when you make sense of data and information, when you “connect the dots” into something that you can apply purposefully. Meaning gives answers to questions such as “So what?”, “What does this mean for me, in my situation?” and “Why should I care?”.
Why should technical communicators care?
Technical communicators should care about meaning, because we are in the business of creating meaning and transmitting it to users. We can provide all the data and information we want, if it’s not meaningful to customers, it’s wasted and dead. Any time documentation fails, it’s either because meaning has not been created or not been transmitted successfully. Documentation that merely informs the user “To print a file, click the Print button” does not support any active experience. It does not create any meaning, if it omits the context, such as the task the user may be engaged in, the prerequisites and the expected results of the user’s action.
- How can we ensure that our documentation is meaningful? Should we be thinking about meaning explicitly? Or is it enough to know our audience, use personas and create task-oriented documentation? Feel free to leave a comment.