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It's a cold Xmas chez Norfolk...

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My central heating chose to pack up on Xmas Eve, as it does, and this nice man from British Gas came round to fix it. [As an aside, even in Midwinter, you don't actually need central heating, especially these days when winters aren't so cold - we're not actually freezing. Which is worth remembering, since central heating is probably a major contributor to global warming - woolly jumpers are OK, which gives us a nice warm feeling; even if all the wood we're now burning is more problematic.]

We’re burning wood because, of course, he couldn't fix it on the spot - one of several control boards had failed. Which is becoming the story of our times, computer chips fail before the mechanics becomes unrepairable. No more vintage cars, say, because the vintage engine-control circuit boards (or chips) will be unavailable. Or, perhaps, a lucrative job for retired nerds recreating old circuit boards by hand? Is a vintage Mondeo going to be worth it?

But the real point of this post is that as I watched my Man from BG working through his fault-finding flowcharts on his portable PC, I suddenly took pity on him and found him the original manuals with the charts on paper. These were gratefully accepted - it's still easier to jump around a printed manual than flip between screens on a PC.

And that's something for systems developers to remember - you're designing a whole system, not just a computer system - and you’re designing for its whole lifecycle, not just for the day after delivery. So, you need to design support and repair processes as part of the system, not just as a later add-on - and sometimes this'll mean designing manual procedures to complement the automated processes (the human mind is still cost-effective for dealing with unexpected contingencies); and even, perhaps, paper manuals...

But you do need some empathy with the people using your system. Years ago, when paper instruction manuals were the norm, I met a system for managing equipment on the floor of a steel mill, which had clever iconised instructions on-screen with not much English anywhere (rather like you'll see when you open a Korean DVD recorder or whatever today). This was in Australia, paper wouldn't have survived long on the shop floor, most of the immigrant work force didn't have English as a first language and certainly couldn't agree on a consistent name for a "floggle-toggle" - although they could all recognise its picture.

So, should The Man from BG be given a set of computerised pictorial flow diagrams or a printed manual or something else entirely? There's no right answer, of course, it depends on the cultural background of BG employees and what they need the documentation for (and whether they're trying to read a PC balanced on the bog while using it). However, I'm sure that translating a printed manual directly into PDF page-images on a PC screen is usually the wrong (well, sub-optimal) answer...

So, do you have a professional technical writer on the team and a specialist in the psychology of man-machine interactions? And, if not, should you have? ®

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