Form and Function

Have you ever been accused of preferring form over function? I have!

I had suggested breaking up a bunch of large, many-paged topics into smaller ones. The boss said that I was choosing form over function. After all, why do all that extra work, when the information is there in the document and the reader can scroll or search for terms within?

I immediately wondered why he had hired me.

The guy simply misunderstood the function of Help.

The function of help

Without thinking much, some people might say that the function of Help is to make information available. Searchability is the goal. That’s what my nemesis at the time thought. Make the information available and then go have a beer.

Most tech writers would go a step further to say that it’s more about helping the reader find the information. Findability is more important than Searchability. We don’t want our readers to wade through a sea of highlighted key words to find the goods.

But why bother? If we can get the information out there, why bother “making it pretty”? Why bother spending effort and money to make it more accessible? And more to point, how can we convince the naysayers that making it pretty isn’t just making it pretty?

The tack I took was by defining the goal in bottom-line terms that may be familiar to you:

The function of Help is to stop people from calling us and costing us money.

For internal docs, it’s to stop people running around inefficiently trying to find answers. If we put the information out there without saving us money, then we’ve done NOTHING. (In fact, our salaries are a cost that should be eliminated.)

As a rule, people won’t read 25 pages to find a three-step process. They won’t do it. They’ll Google for help. They’ll ask co-workers. And eventually, they’ll call us, email us, or use Chat Support. In other words, eventually, they’ll cost us money. The same thing applies to a lesser degree to help that is ugly, formatted badly, or is otherwise annoying.

If the function is to save us money, then placing the information in a usable, findable, and even nice-looking package pays off. If the function is to check a box called, “wrote help,” then that stuff doesn’t matter as much.

When we talk about form and function, the first thing to do is figure out the function.

Have I gotten this wrong? Or am I missing something important? Or do you agree?

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