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?

4 Responses to “Form and Function”

  1. August 28, 2012 at 1:24 am #

    I LOVE this article! You are spot on with form being vital to function.

    White space and organization are more than just “extra work,” they make perusing text a bit easier for those searching for information. That task shouldn’t be like hunting for camouflaged game in a forest; rather, it should be a pleasant walk through well-kept woods, with open spaces here and there to bring in the sunshine.

    Also enjoyed your line, “I immediately wondered why he had hired me.” Unfortunately, that is probably a much too common thought among tech writers.

    • August 28, 2012 at 9:52 pm #

      Thanks, Sherry! Love the imagery.

  2. August 29, 2012 at 1:39 pm #

    I’d couch it in slightly different terms, Robert. The function of Help is to help people. (Duh!) A good measure — probably the best measure — of how well our Help functions is how well it stops people from calling us and costing us money.

    So even though I define the function of help a bit differently, my conclusion would be the same as yours. It’s not nearly enough to set everything before our reader and then depending on him to use Search.

    • August 31, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

      Larry, I guess it depends whether you’re selling it to yourself or to your management. At some point, someone up the chain might ask, “why do we want to help people? Is our goal to make money or help people?”

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