In a recent issue of the Shoap Technical Reader, I commented on my reaction to a usability test in which I had participated (“Why Technical Writers Are So Weird”). The test was for one of our writer’s web UI development classes. He created an application to create a response to an RFP. His observations can be found here: http://superawesomegood.com/2012/03/31/searchers-and-scrollers/.
In simple terms, the application I was testing contained a database of text that I was required to find and use to generate a “response” to a simple RFP. While there was a “search” box conveniently located on the screen that I could use to find the requested information, I chose to scroll through the database to find the desired text. The only time I used the search box was when I felt I was taking too long to find the topic I was supposed to choose. The search feature worked well (and it was fast). The “problem” I had searching for the topic is that the search results displayed only the topic I had searched for; I couldn’t see any of the other items in the database.
All of the other technical writers who took the test (the creator of the test tells me) all scrolled instead of searched. I didn’t think much of it until he also told me that the non-technical writers – again a small sample – used the search feature. I figured there was something here.
So why, I wondered, did the technical writers scroll and the non-technical writers search? It’s hard to generalize from such a small sample (there were only 6 of us) and I can’t speak for the other writers. I scroll because I have to know everything I can about the topic I’m working on. I have to “know it all.” The only way I know how to do that – to know it all – is to learn everything I can about it. While searching was fast and efficient, it was unsatisfactory for me because it only delivered the specific text for the search, not the whole picture.
So what, if anything, does this have to do with technical writing? Maybe nothing. But I think a lot about what traits make a good technical writer – I’ve been hiring them for over 25 years – and in addition to discipline and a comfort with technology, I believe that this usability test has revealed yet another trait that I’ve never considered before: the desire, no, the compulsion to know everything you can about something before you can write about it.