Obvious structure in tech comm benefits all users

Informational text that exposes its “structural information, such as hierarchical relations” gets high reading comprehension scores, whether readers have prior subject knowledge or not. This is the result of a study reported in Learning Solutions Magazine by Chris Atherton. And it’s good news for technical communication because it means structured writing and topic-based authoring done well benefit novice and expert users alike.

The study

The study presented a 5,000-word article in three formats to two different groups. The three formats were:

  • A linear document of paragraphs
  • A hierarchical set of linked topics which was basically web site six levels deep
  • A mixed format which combined linear text presentation with links to related topics that didn’t expose structure or hierarchy

The two groups of audience were:

  • Novices without prior knowledge of the subject
  • Experts who had formal training in the subject

The results

It’s best to scroll down to the results graph over at the magazine website, but in case that disappears, here’s a summary of the different reading comprehension scores:

  • Novices understood the hierarchical format best, closely followed by the mixed format, with the linear format a distant third.
  • Experts understood the linear format best, closely followed by the hierarchical format, with the mixed format a distant third.

So exposing the hierarchy and structure of the text benefits novices and experts alike. If you’re writing for experts only, presenting linear text gives them a slight advantage, but “shuts out” novices.

The implications for tech comm

  • Structure authoring helps your users understand and remember. Novice and expert users alike can make sense of the information not only from the individual bits and pieces, but also from the structure how everything hangs together. For example, consider relating concepts and sub-concepts to on another. Or when instructing users to do tasks, consider giving an overview of the big picture process first. Then break down the process clearly into distinct procedures and further into individual steps. For many readers, easy access to structure also helps them to retain information better, regardless how they manage to memorize it.
  • Structured authoring helps you to create complete documentation efficiently. You can organize and maintain your information more efficiently with structure and hierarchy. Structure makes it easier to ensure that each piece of information has a distinct place, so you can avoid redundancies. Hierarchies make it clear where your concepts and procedures are complete and where you still have gaps. It’s easier to note a missing topic or sub-chapter than a missing paragraph somewhere in linear text.
  • Limited advantage of linear text. The study showed that linear text in paragraphs is most comprehensible for expert readers. But I think the advantage of this format is in general limited:
    • For novices, linear text is a distant third, so relying on “linear” requires that you have a homogenously expert audience.
    • For you as a writer, linear text possibly takes more time or effort to maintain, depending on how much text you maintain and how often you update.
    • For other writers who need to edit or update your documentation, linear text is probably harder than topics that expose the internal structure of the subject matter.

By the way: Chris Atherton and I will lead a workshop together at TCUK13 in Bristol on 24 September. So if you’re in the area and want to “Bake your own taxonomy”, consider joining us. πŸ™‚

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4 Responses

  1. ?????Experts who had *format* training?

    • Oops, sorry – and thank you for pointing this out, Guy: These experts had formal training. Not format training… πŸ˜‰

  2. Hallo Kai

    Thanks, that’s very interesting. The “linear” text results in scores at the top or bottom end of the scale, depending on audience, while the “hierarchical” structure seems to be a good choice for a reasonably consistent high score.

    Another interesting point is that the article says “the text was the same in all three conditions”. But we would tend to adapt the text slightly, depending on layout. For example, if the layout is linear, the text would just flow from one paragraph to the next. But if the layout is structured, with many topics in a hierarchy, we would tend to put material at the top and bottom, containing contextual information. I also wonder if the “linear” material had headings above each section, mimicking the titles of the topics in the hierarchical layout.

    It would also be interesting to test how many people, whether experts or not, would actually bother to read a long linear topic if not strongly requested to do so as part of the test. In other words, if the material is all in one page, without headings or sections, perhaps only dedicated people, or those with a bit of time on their hands, would read it from top to bottom – whether expert or not?

    Great post, as always. πŸ™‚
    Cheers
    Sarah

    • Thanks, Sarah, for your thoughtful comments.

      I agree, layout and section headings influence reading comprehension – along with alignment which I discussed in earlier post: “Ragged-right or justified alignment?

      It’s my assumption that the study kept the differences between the three formats to a bare minimum of adding links. But since I don’t have access to the original study article, I basically ran with something I found interesting and relevant and applied it to tech comm. But in the interest of truly understanding the study and validating its results for our profession, one would have to go back to the original study, no doubt!

      Thanks for your inquisitive curiosity – we need it to maintain our high standards and professional integrity! πŸ™‚

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