Do Attractive Documents Work Better?

In my last post, I argued that technical writers ought to think of themselves as artists who should create the most beautiful documents they can. A few writers responded with some gentle pushback. The conversation is on LinkedIn, but here’s a summary:

  • Steve Bain said that some technical writers literally are artists in their spare time, and that the most talented tech writers are the ones who find ways to make their dry documentation “engaging and compelling.” I replied that competency in fine art doesn’t mean you will be able to create well-designed technical documents—the ends of each practice are very different, to say nothing of the tools used to carry them out, or the criteria used to judge them. Still, I do agree with Steve that doing fine art can hone your taste in what is beautiful. The question is … well, there are at least two questions: (1) How does one transfer one’s taste in fine art to creating beautiful documents? (2) What makes documentation “engaging and compelling”? What do these qualities mean, specifically, in the context of technical writing? I have some ideas, and I hope to write about them sometime on this blog.
  • Erwin Timmerman emphasized that beauty should not interfere with the function of documentation. I concurred but contended that beauty in technical writing ought to encompass more than visual design. There is beauty in clarity, simplicity, order, consistency, and symmetry—all of which are core elements of functional documentation. In fact, a technical document is beautiful precisely when it doesn’t distract readers but enables them to do what they need to do, as seamlessly as possible—which is to say, a document that accounts for the fact that readers are rational and emotional creatures who prefer beautiful things over ugly things.

Erwin’s comment reminded me of some concepts I first learned over a decade ago in Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, by design guru Don Norman. The first chapter of the book opens with a story about an Israeli scientist, Noam Tractinsky, who questioned the results of a Japanese study showing that attractive products work better than un-attractive products. While Tractinsky agreed that attractive things certainly look nicer, he thought that aesthetics don’t ultimately matter as long as a product is functional. So he ran his own study in Israel. Much to his surprise, he found that the evidence in favor of the “attractive products work better” theory was even stronger in Israel than in Japan.

Source: Goodreads

Why is this the case? Citing research from other psychologists on the matter, Norman explains that much of it has to do with our emotions. Here’s one relevant passage:

The psychologist Alice Isen and her colleagues have shown that being happy broadens the thought processes and facilitates creative thinking. Isen discovered that when people were asked to solve difficult problems, ones that required unusual “out of the box” thinking, they did much better when they had just been given a small gift-not much of a gift, but enough to make them feel good. When you feel good, Isen discovered, you are better at brainstorming, at examining multiple alternatives. And it doesn’t take much to make people feel good. All Isen had to do was ask people to watch a few minutes of a comedy film or receive a small bag of candy.

Here’s another which I think is even more illuminating. It is long but important to read in its entirety:

We have long known that when people are anxious they tend to narrow their thought processes, concentrating upon aspects directly relevant to a problem. This is a useful strategy in escaping from danger, but not in thinking of imaginative new approaches to a problem. Isen’s results show that when people are relaxed and happy, their thought processes expand, becoming more creative, more imaginative. These and related findings suggest the role of aesthetics in product design: attractive things make people feel good, which in turn makes them think more creatively. How does that make something easier to use? Simple, by making it easier for people to find solutions to the problems they encounter. With most products, if the first thing you try fails to produce the desired result, the most natural response is to try again, only with more effort. In today’s world of computer-controlled controlled products, doing the same operation over again is very unlikely to yield better results. The correct response is to look for alternative solutions. The tendency to repeat the same operation over again is especially likely for those who are anxious or tense. This state of negative affect leads people to focus upon the problematic details, and if this strategy fails to provide a solution, they get even more tense, more anxious, and increase their concentration upon those troublesome details. Contrast this behavior with those who are in a positive emotional state, but encountering the same problem. These people are apt to look around for alternative approaches, which is very likely to lead to a satisfying end. Afterward, the tense and anxious people will complain about the difficulties whereas the relaxed, happy ones will probably not even remember them. In other words, happy people are more effective in finding alternative solutions and, as a result, are tolerant of minor difficulties.

Let that idea sink in: When people are anxious, they tend to narrow their thought processes. When people are happy, they become more creative and imaginative at solving problems.

This has at least two massive implications for technical writers. First, we must never forget that in the large majority of cases when technical documentation is consulted, the people consulting it are already considerably anxious or miserable. Their brains and emotional dispositions are in what we might call a rigid rather than a flexible mood. They will do things that seem irrational to us, and miss cues that might be totally obvious to us. As Norman points out, they are likely to retry the same operation rather than exploring alternatives.

Second, this means that one of the best things a technical writer can do is create beautiful documents that ease readers’ anxiety, calm their beating hearts, and broaden their thought processes—in a word, to do all we can to make readers happy. This will incline the reader to forgive gaps or errors in the documentation, and to try other ways of finding what they need, such as using different keywords or exploring a different navigation path.

One might say that the job of the technical writer, then, is not only to write and organize information well, but to make their content beautiful.

Why, though? Don’t we just need to write accurate content and organize it as best we can? Does having an attractive design really matter that much? Answer: Both accuracy and attractive design matter, because the overall beauty of the content—and I’m using the word “beauty” here in a holistic sense to encompass good visual design as well as intuitive information architectures and accurate, well-crafted sentences—will improve the reader’s happiness level and, subsequently, the reader’s capacity to search and consume the content; to try alternatives if they miss something; and to apply what they learn to solve their problem or answer their question.

This assumes, of course, that you agree with the premise that attractive things make people feel good and move them closer to a happier, more adaptive mindset. If you don’t believe that—if you think that aesthetics are ultimately superficial or secondary, and users get along just as well without it—well, good luck out there! But if you follow the evidence from Donald Norman showing that people literally feel better when they encounter attractive things, this opens up a whole set of ideas and questions related not only to what reads well but to how your writing looks. In other words, your documents are not just more likely to look nicer than if you hadn’t. They are more likely to actually work better because of the emotional impact that nice-looking things have.

Now to be clear, the role of emotions in how humans interact with products (and by extension, documents) is not a simple matter. Norman describes emotions in three parts: visceral, behavioral, and reflective. Understanding the differences in these emotional states leads him to discuss more nuanced considerations in the design process—considerations which I haven’t gone into here. It’s quite possible I’m missing something. Yet I think Norman’s principle about the interplay between beauty and human emotions can be applied to what technical writers do. Even if a document had a beautiful design but poorly-written content, that document would still work better than if both the content and the design were terrible.

Happy to be proven wrong about that, though. If there’s good research showing that aesthetics in technical writing don’t matter that much in the end, or if there are some key qualifications I’m not accounting for, I want to know. If nothing else, I might save myself a heck of a lot of time figuring out how to beautify my prose and my stylesheets.