Sunday, August 7, 2011

Matching Scenarios, or Cooking Sainsburys

I focus a lot on the audience but, for technical writing, scenario is the second most important input to creating a genuinely useful document. In technical writing, "scenario" describes the situation in which the reader will use the information and, recently, I just had an otherwise excellent piece of technical writing fail on this issue.

Some background: My wife and I are on another house swap, this time into Northern Ireland. When we're in the UK, I cook at least one meal for us by buying a package meal from Sainsburys or ADSO. These are an Indian, Chinese, or Thai meal-in-a-box. Typically, there are four or five courses and taste fine. What I like is how easy it is to cook the meal: You set the oven to some temperature and just feed packages of food into the oven at regular intervals. So there's your audience: someone clueless in the kitchen.

The instructions for the Chinese meal I cooked last night were:

Overall cooking time (cooking from chilled): 30 minutes
  1. Set oven temperature to 175 degrees Celsius
  2. Puncture the cover for the rice and the chowmein  and place in the oven
  3. After 5 minutes, remove the battered chicken from their container and put on a baking sheet in the oven
  4. After 10 minutes, remove the vegetable rolls from their container and put on a baking sheet in the oven; put the container with the sweet-and-sour sauce in the oven
And that's the end. If you work through the scenario, you realize at this point (or, at any rate, I realized at this point) that you don't know when to take the meal out of the oven.

You can, of course, figure it out. The overall cooking time is 30 minutes and the second set of containers went in at the 15 minute mark, so the meal comes out in 15 minutes...except I hadn't bothered to notice the time when I put the meal in.

What I had noticed was the time when the second component should go in. And, after putting that component in, I noted the time to put in the third component. You might assume that I would have set the timer on the oven to 30 minutes when I put the first component. I didn't. But, if I was going to set the timer to anything when I put the meal in, I would have set the timer to 5 minutes so that it would remind me to put in the second component.

If the person writing the instructions had an actual audience member (like me) try the instructions out--someone who's idea of cooking is warming things up--then they would have added the fifth and final instruction:

                5. After 15 minutes, remove the meal from the oven. 

Reading or read

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