Are we always as rational as we think? Many of the things we do such as making decisions, reacting to new situations and even writing technical documentation are influenced by our past experiences, previous knowledge and preconceptions — which influence the way we process information and are not always objective.
Writing for the average user can be tricky. Our mind can only hold a limited amount of information, and thinking is an intense process that consumes a lot of energy and resources that are already scarce. This is why our mind usually takes shortcuts in order to save effort, time and energy, make fast decisions and minimise cognitive processing. These thinking strategies or patterns are known as “cognitive biases”. Unfortunately, these mental shortcuts are often systematic, automatic, inefficient and irrational.
When writing technical documentation we face questions such as: “Is the description of this product or functionality detailed enough and easy to understand for the average user? Is it appealing enough?” And we have to make decisions based on the answers to these questions. Often our subconscious mind will process the information based on previous knowledge and experiences and will make a decision even before we consciously make it ourselves. By doing so, and due to cognitive biases, it can easily lead us in the wrong direction. These biases are common to all of us, and we cannot eliminate them, but if we are aware of their existence, we can avoid making incorrect decisions. We can also use them to our advantage by organising or presenting information in our documentation in a way that is appealing to our readers and positively influences their perception of the respective products.
There are plenty of cognitive biases, and mentioning them all goes beyond the scope of this short article, but in general, and according to the Cognitive Bias Codex, we can say that cognitive biases help us address the following:
- Too much information: Our brain cannot process all the information it receives through our senses, so it filters it.
- Not enough meaning: The available information is incomplete, so we have to fill in the gaps with what we already know or think we know.
- Need to act fast: We are constrained by time and information, yet we often have to make decisions quickly, react to situations and predict what could happen next.
- What to remember for later: Since our brain’s capacity is limited, it stores only the most essential information that might be useful in the future.
A few examples
Confirmation bias refers to our tendency to seek and favour information that confirms our existing beliefs and ignore what contradicts them. How can this affect technical communication? For example, we are likely to focus on feedback that confirms our beliefs and ignore alternatives or we might fail to see gaps in the content when it coincides with our knowledge.
The halo effect is the tendency to create a positive opinion about a person, company, product, etc. in one area based on positive impressions and observations in another area. For example, if we have had positive experiences with a product in the past, we are more likely to think positively of another product by the same company or even the whole brand without any other information. This also applies to documentation. If we have a positive impression at first glance, for example, because it is visually appealing, we are more likely to think it is better, which in turn will enhance the opinion we have about the product it refers to or even the company that produces it.
Curse of knowledge is our tendency to assume that others know what we know and can therefore understand us. When we know something in and out, for example our products and services, we struggle to put ourselves in the position of others who don’t have the same knowledge. This is relevant in technical communication because those responsible for producing documentation must be careful not to omit important information from instructions; something that is obvious to them because they are very familiar with the jargon, product or service might not make sense to the average customer reading the instructions.
Planning fallacy refers to our tendency to underestimate how much time is needed to complete a task. It is important to set realistic deadlines and allow time for complications when making completion predictions for a project. One way to minimise the effect is to “unpack” overall tasks into smaller tasks, making implementation plans for how and when each subtask will be completed. For example, if you are planning to draw up an instruction manual for a new product, you might want to plan time for research, drafting, proofreading and editing, graphics, and so on.
Cognitive biases influence how we make decisions, react to new situations, handle tasks, draw up documentation, etc. That means we don’t always think and act objectively and we might omit crucial information or set unrealistic deadlines. The effects of such biases are difficult to avoid and can even be harmful, so it is important to know how to lessen them. But we can also take advantage of them in order to shape how our readers perceive our documentation, products and brand. So be aware and keep an eye out when writing your documentation!
Image source: Gerd Altmann | Pixabay