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Reading vs Scanning

Not to belabor my problems with Spotlight last week, but I have to say Apple’s “documentation”—a few fluffy paragraphs extruded from Marketing’s pastry bag—was no help. I’m old enough to remember when Macs came with a stack of manuals. Ironically, you didn’t need any of them, Macs being all so user-friendly and such, but I fondly recall making tea and curling up with one for a good read. (Am I a geek, or what?) These days I picture the Documentation Department as one overworked marcomm intern.

Reading manuals has its rewards. When I started playing with computers, what made me an “expert” among my colleagues was that I had read the manual. (“Wow! How did you know that?!”) As I mentioned, I liked reading manuals. For one brief moment after college, I even considered writing documentation for a living. I interviewed at Computer Associates for a technical writing position, although I didn’t get the job. It’s a good thing, too, because I was saved from a life of unrewarding drudgery, not because writing documentation is boring, but because nobody reads it anyway.

But back to Apple. What’s so utterly pointless about this new style of documentation is that the text is so brief and superficial there’s nothing written that you couldn’t figure out on your own in a minute. I think the philosophy behind this Cliffs Notes style of documentation is not some kind of sanctioned corporate laziness, but an earnest attempt to craft something based on assumptions about the way people read today, especially on the Internet. Supposedly, people don’t read any more, they “scan.”

Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen wrote, “79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across.” Well, yes. That’s the way people read something unfamiliar. Scanning is a strategy that lets us decide if something is worth reading. Jakob is telling us to write for the scanning reader, and implies that scanning is all you can expect of your reader. I just don’t like the implication. Scanning is a new strategy to deal with information overload, but it doesn’t mean that people don’t read anymore.

I know that if a piece interests me, my attention span lengthens appropriately, whether it’s a monster New Yorker article or just the latest megapost by drunkenbatman. As for the younger generation having an attention span whittled down by television, that hasn’t been borne out in my experience. I’ve seen kids spend hours reading books they love. I think it’s all about the writing. Give me something good to read, and you’ve got my attention. If not, I’m scanning and moving on. The point of all this is, when I find something I like, I don’t want it to end, so if anything, I am advocating writing longer pieces rather than writing for scanning. Gee, I think this piece has gone on a little too long, but hey, thanks for scanning!

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