Psychology & technical communication, Chris Atherton at TCUK

Technical communication benefits greatly from cross-pollination with related disciplines, such as cognitive psychology. That was my conclusion after the presentation “Everything you always wanted to know about psychology and technical communication … but were afraid to ask” by Chris Atherton (@finiteattention).

Chris is an applied cognitive psychologist and Senior Lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire. She has the rare ability to cut through the crap without shortchanging her subject or her audience. She makes Occam’s razor user-friendly, if you will.

Here are my top 3 insights from Chris’ presentation and how I find them applicable to technical communications:

1. Do your reader a favor and supply context

Context relates different pieces of contents. More specifically, it relates what users already know to what they need to learn right now as they read the help. For example, an essential setup procedure is not helping the user, if they don’t know where to set up stuff. Well-written headings and carefully arranged “related links” help users to establish context and to evaluate whether the content they found is relevant to them.

Context also means the “location” of pieces of content. That location can be in a book (for example, about half-way through), on a page or screen (near the top) or in an online table of contents, such as Word’s document map (a sub-topic on one of the first branches after the introduction). Note that all the examples are really vague. But as Chris says, “we remember the gist and location.” And that’s what we go by when we try to find content again.

By the way, Chris pointed to research by Jakob Nielsen who found that location still works on long pages that require vertical scrolling! Apparently, readers do scroll – and remember the general location of what they read.

(You might recognize these points about context as two of my Top 10 things that users want to do in a help system.)

2. Simultaneity implies causality

That means that we often understand two things happening at the same time to be related by cause and effect. In technical communications, this is most relevant to training videos and user interfaces. For example, two call-outs appearing at once will be assumed to be related somehow. Don’t let the user guess, instead:

  • Be careful to create logical sequences.
  • Avoid presenting alternatives or unrelated items at the same time – and if you do, ensure to label them clearly (which will hopefully clutter up your screen or script enough to convince you to break them apart…).

Another example where simultaneity implies causality is people who can turn off streetlights simply by walking past them – which brings us to:

3. Don’t waste time catering to dogmas

This is a tricky one: Some psychological concepts are generally accepted as facts. Yet they make many scientists gringe, because the numbers and the evidence just aren’t there. For example, Chris referred to substantial criticism that’s hacking away at the alleged foundations of individually preferred learning styles.

For me, as a non-scientist, that means that I can support different learning styles in my documentation if it’s done easily and with no or insignificant additional effort, but I won’t go out of my way.

From here on, it’s a sliding scale into the murky depths of psychobabble which is easier to decode and ridicule. To quote an example from an NLP website: “Use brain gym to calm, energise or reconnect right and left brain for improved concentration.” (Apparently, in most people, the left and right brain are successfully connected, regardless of the brain trouble they may believe to have…)

Your turn

Do you know of other insights from psychology that can benefit technical communications? Or do you want to share ideas or experiences with one of the ideas above? Feel free to leave a comment!

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3 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by writerriver, KeyContent.org, Rick Sapir, Kai Weber, Technical Comms and others. Technical Comms said: kaiweber: Psychology & technical communication, Chris Atherton at TCUK http://bit.ly/blkCUX […]

  2. Thanks especially for the first insight “Do your reader a favor and supply context”. The idea of knowing where the information fits into the big picture and being able to come back is why online help should always supply an hierarchical table of contents. Full text (“Google”) search can be fast when you don’t know where to look for, but it can be slow if you want to be return to a page that you have read before.

    • Thanks, Marc. In fact, Google with its similar looking result pages was exactly the example Chris used to show how difficult it was to find something again on Google. A table of contents can certainly help here, as can a trail of breadcrumbs.

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