Making large amounts of information comprehensible and easy to digest is the bulk of what we do as technical communicators. But this is a task for which most people have had no formal guidance.
Information Mapping is already used in the world of business process documentation to break down and re-structure information so that employees do their jobs better. Can a similar approach be taken for technical product documentation?
Style guides, content models and common sense
Currently, writers take information and attempt to put it into a useful form using guidance from style guides, content models and common sense. This makes it hard to standardise content across technical writers, or to have an objective measure of quality.
The Information Mapping® Method
As both a course and a standard, Information Mapping presents a systematic approach to organising and presenting information that is based on the needs and expectations of the reader. So far so good. When it comes to technical product information, we need to define how to structure and present information and graphics, and how to make stylistic choices for both writing and layout.
The Information Mapping course covers a number of topics from document design to how to write definitions, and describes a number of hard-and-fast rules for documentation. In some cases, we can bend these a little for technical documentation, while still sticking to the core principles:
Information should be broken down into manageable chunks.
The content of each topic should be relevant to the task at hand.
All topics, figures and tables should be given meaningful labels.
All aspects of documentation should be kept as consistent as possible.
- Integrated graphics
Graphics should be as close as possible to the relevant text.
- Accessible detail
Content of topics should be accessible to those who need it.
As an example of how Information Mapping principles can be applied to technical product documentation, we can look at chunking.
A ‘manageable chunk’ is defined as a group of 7±2 items when reading from paper, or 5±2 when reading from a screen. This is based on research into short-term memory which suggests that a reader can remember and analyse this many items at any one time.
This principle is just as relevant to technical product documentation as it is to business processes, and can apply to items in a list, steps in a procedure, or sentences in a paragraph. At a higher level, there should be 5±2 topics in a chapter and ideally only 5±2 chapters in a guide.
The study in question which gave us these particular numbers is now considered a little outdated, however the principle itself remains a good one: human short-term memory is limited. Too many steps, options or paragraphs and your reader will struggle to remember where they started.
Applying Information Mapping to technical documentation
Both technical product information and business processes need to be accurately and consistently documented, so both can benefit from the Information Mapping Method.
The principles in particular can be used as high-level planning guidelines, and can apply to processes as well as conceptual and reference topics. They can also help documentation achieve regulatory compliance.
In some cases, though, we need to bend these rules a little: it is not such a disaster to include ten chapters in a guide where this is unavoidable. At 3di Information Solutions we use these Information Mapping principles alongside our own style guides and content models to produce content that is consistent, useful and accessible.