Last week, I saw a post in LinkedIn about a “new” finding (from 2012) that “New research shows correlation between difficult to read fonts and content recall.” First, kudos for not confusing correlation and causation (although, the study was experimental and did prove a causal relationship), but the source article demonstrates an example of inappropriate generalization. To the point of this post, it also underscores the context-sensitive nature of content and how similar advice and best-practices should be tested in each specific context.
Hard to read, easy to recall?
The LinkedIn post refers to an article in the March 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review. The HBR article starts out overgeneralizing by summarizing the finding of a small experiment as, “People recall what they’ve read better when it’s printed in smaller, less legible type.” This research was also picked up by Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath, which has the effect of making it almost as true as the law of gravity.
Towards the end of the HBR article, the researcher tries to rein in the overgeneralizations by saying (emphasis mine), “Much of our research was done at a high-performing high school…It’s not clear how generalizable our findings are to low-performing schools or unmotivated students.“ …or perhaps people who are not even students? Again, kudos for trying. Further complicating the finding stated by the HBR article is that the study’s findings have not been reliably replicated in subsequent studies, other populations, or larger groups. I’m not discounting the researcher’s efforts, in fact, I agree with his observation that the conclusions don’t seem to be generalizable beyond the experiment’s scope.
Context is a high-order bit
All this reinforces the notion that when studying content and communication, context is a high-order bit1. As a high-order bit, ignoring it can have profound implications on the results. Any “best practice” or otherwise generalized advice should not be considered without including its contexts: the context in which it was derived and the context into which it will be applied.
This also reinforces the need to design content for testing–and to then test and analyze it.
1. In binary numbers, a high-order bit influences the result more than any and all of the other lower-order bits put together.
After being submerged in the depths of my PhD research project since I can’t remember when, I’m finally able to ponder its nuance and complexity. I find that I’m enjoying the interesting texture that I found in something as mundane as API reference documentation, now that I have a chance to explore and appreciate it (because my dissertation has been turned in!!!!). It’s in that frame of mind that I consider the antithesis of that nuance, the “sloganeering” I’ve seen so often in technical writing.
Is technical writing really so easy and simple that it can be reduced to a slogan or a list of 5 (or even 7) steps? I can appreciate the need to condense a topic into something that fits in a tweet, a blog post, or a 50-minute conference talk. But, is that it?
Let’s start with Content minimalism or, in slogan form, Less is more! While my research project showed that less can be read faster (fortunately, or I’d have a lot more explaining to do), it also showed that less is, well, in a word, less, not more. It turns out that even the father of Content Minimalism, John Carroll, agrees. He says in his 1996 article, “Ten Misconceptions about Minimalism,”
In essence, we will argue that a general view of minimalism cannot be reduced to any of these simplifications, that the effectiveness of the minimalist approach hinges on taking a more comprehensive, articulated, and artful approach to the design of information.
In the context of a well considered task and audience analysis, it’s easy for the writer to know what’s important and focus on it–less can be more useful and easier to grok. He says later in that same article,
Minimalist design in documentation, as in architecture or music, requires identifying the core structures and content.
In the absence of audience and task information, less can simply result in less when the content lacks the core structures and content and misses the readers’ needs. More can also be less, when writers try to cover those aspects by covering everything they can think of (so-called peanut-butter documentation that covers everything to some unsatisfying uniform depth).
For less to be more, it has to be well informed. Its the last part that makes it a little complicated.
Carroll, John, van der Meij, Hans (1996): Ten Misconceptions about Minimalism. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 39(2), 72-86.