Re. "irreverence and humor" in documentation

Subject: Re. "irreverence and humor" in documentation
From: Geoff Hart <geoff-h -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
Date: Mon, 3 Apr 1995 12:23:23 LCL

A few comments, in response to the need to indicate how long some
process would take, liked the idea of "go get a cup of coffee" because
it was funny, irreverent, and humanized the documentation. Hear, hear!
(Hear here?) I've seen a few notable examples of this that worked
quite well... notably the manual for a piece of software called _The
Incredible Machine_. The idea is to build a Rube Goldberg sort of
device using a variety of tool buttons so the device would then solve
some physical problem (e.g., use a "ramps" tool to guide falling
bowling balls into a collection device) and, appropriately enough, the
instructions are in the form of a looseleaf notebook created by the
proverbial mad scientists. Cute, and more importantly, unintimidating
to the intended audience... thus, very effective.

Bottom line? If the audience is likely to be intimidated, and
comprises kids, gamers, or others who aren't impressed by formalisms,
go for it! But a few cautionary notes:

1. This won't work for all audiences... senior management and many
other individuals must don their "humorless hats" when they sit down
behind their spreadsheet, and they won't take you seriously if you
trivialize your subject. If you mock yourself, many readers will
wonder how good you (thus, your product) really is... and this can
cost you lots of dollars in sales.

2. Humor is very subjective. Make sure that (i) you test it on a few
typical audience members to be sure there's no offence (ask your
political correctness guru, and if s/he isn't worried, neither should
you be) and, more importantly, (ii) test it to be sure that the
meaning is as clear as you thought. If you communicate clearly despite
the humor, well and good... if not, you've failed in your primary
task, explaining something. Note that you will rarely be the best
judge of your own humor. As an inveterate punster ("Warning:
incorrigible punster... please don't incorrige"), I've often
discovered that I'm too subtle for my own good. You are too... count
on it.

3. Like any other spice you use in your cooking, humor can be
overused. Treat it like cayenne: a little dab'l'do'ya.

--Geoff Hart geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

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