Tuesday, May 20, 2008

User Assistance: Writing for a High-Context Culture

Writing for a high-context culture ...

"Jean-Luc Dumont is a respected authority in international technical communications, but he is most renowned for a particularly entertaining presentation he gives about road signs. This genre of tight communications that are written for small spaces and meant to read by users in motion holds many lessons for those of us who write user assistance.

Especially enlightening is the distinction Jean-Luc makes between high-context cultures and low-context cultures and how that difference in cultures influences the language of road signs. While technical communicators tend to write in a low-context style, user assistance occurs in high-context situations. So, in this column, I’ll discuss the need to reexamine how we write user assistance in light of this cultural proclivity.
High Context and Low Context

Jean-Luc points out—nonjudgmentally—that the American culture is a low-context culture. Figure 1 shows one of Jean-Luc’s examples that makes his point most vividly. I see this kind of sign several times a week in my own neighborhood.

This is a typically American-style road sign, because in low-context cultures, the assumption is that people know only what you have explicitly told them, and anything that is not expressly prohibited is allowed. On the other hand, people in high-context cultures do not need to be told not to hit pedestrians, because not hurting people is part of the cultural value system, and the assumption is that this guideline applies to traffic scenarios as well. In a low-context culture, it is apparently not only necessary to state this rule, it needs the further status of being law—versus a general guideline for drivers to follow or ignore at their discretion.

The Culture of Technical Writing

What we consider to be good technical writing often reflects an American cultural perspective. One facet of this cultural orientation is that technical writing tends to use a low-context style. Most notably, we tend to write user assistance as if users have never seen the user interface we are explaining. Secondly, we tend to write user assistance as if users have never even used software before. But users rarely go to Help before they have tried to accomplish a task on their own first, and most users today have extensive experience using software and are familiar with the standard ways of interacting with user interfaces. So a user interface is a high-context artifact—one a user has already seen before reading our documentation and that uses rules and conventions the user already knows."    (Continued via UXmatters)    [Usability Resources]

A sign for a low-context culture. - Usability, User Interface Design

A sign for a low-context culture.

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