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Substance and Style: Strange Bedfellows? January 17, 2007

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Communication, Computers, Knowledge Workers, Language, Mac vs PC, Macintosh, Management, Science & Technology, Technical Writing, Technology, Windows, Writing.
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Oddly enough, those of us who are highly technology centered frequently forget that most of the rest of the world is not. As a result, the truly geeky among us probably don’t use HTML e-mail, use plain text instead of a fancy font when building a to-do list, and probably don’t worry a bit about how our PC looks. The rest of the world, however, seems to want technology to be visually appealing and esthetically pleasing.

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Mercedes is famous for describing its cars with the slogan: “Form follows function.” However, anyone who’s looked at any Mercedes for more than a moment would realize that these cars embody a certain style as well. Does this minimalist approach extend elsewhere? Is it ridiculous to expect style and substance to co-exist, or does the very presence of style suggest that there is no substance?

No Frills, All Thrills?
Before Windows, who was using computers? Those of us who are comfortable with plain, unvarnished technology. After the toaster-Mac and Windows 3.0 era began, we started to see more and more non-geeks sitting down to use computers. In part, this was the “user friendliness” of the technology, but I suspect it was also because the environment was something the user could modify into a style that was within their comfort zone.

Those of us who are tech-heads seem to have a no-frills, performance first bias. In contrast, as you look at the rest of the population, and sample the less and less geeky among us, you’ll find less interest about pure performance, and more and more interest about style.

What? Geeks Without Style?
Now, before anyone comes slamming down on me as an anti-Mac command-line snob, realize that I find myself in that portion of humanity that DOES care about style issues, and am generally not willing to go for pure performance at the expense of appearance. This doesn’t mean that seeing me walking down the street will suggest that I regularly read GQ. It simply means that there are times when I will sacrifice some performance for ease-of-use or style concerns.

For this reason, I have no interest in the Subaru WRX Sti, and prefer the Honda S2000 (style and performance over pure performance). On the other side of the coin, the S2000 is definitely a minimalist sports car, and obviously has made trade-offs of luxury in exchange for better performance.

What Price Beauty?
Now, some will argue that if there is no function beneath a form, then you have nothing more than a facade. Or, you might be concerned about the overhead of style, such as the increase in bandwidth for an HTML-format mail message instead of straight ASCII text. Here are some arguments that I’ve heard:

There has to be function before form, else you have just a facade. The arguments against HTML mail, are more than just aesthetics. It consumes time and bandwidth without adding much to the message. As for the list, why gussy something up that has the lifespan of a fruit fly? And of course the PC is for most of us hidden “out of sight, out of mind. Besides computers are headed toward pervasiveness, and subsequently becoming invisible.

Why then, does art exist? If, in Mercedes Benz fashion, I always suggest that “form follows function,” that’s a perfectly valid view. That doesn’t suggest that form has to be completely utilitarian to still be functional.

I know many people that make nice, bulleted to-do lists in word. Nobody else sees it. I have no idea why they do this, any more than why they insist on storing their grocery list on a PDA instead of writing it on a scrap of paper.

As for the arguments against HTML mail, the person using the pretty fonts and formatting is more concerned with the presentation of the information than you are! To them, it’s worth the expenditure of the extra CPU cycles and message length to create a different impression. There are reasons for using something other than Courier in your resume! I would posit that when the cost of cosmetic improvement falls to a low enough point, all of us will make adjustments for appearance. The difference being that this point lies at different levels for each of us, so one man’s frill is another’s necessity.

For those who remember our pre-windows history, computers were used by both geeks, and businesses that needed a tool to get the job done. Businesses have never really been about “pretty”, preferring function, for “pretty” has never been perceived as adding to the bottom line. The same however can not be said for those goods and services that were directed toward the consumer.

This is somewhat true. The business users of computers were few and far between, and generally relied on data processing centers rather than interacting with the systems themselves. Only with the advent of Lotus 123 and Visicalc did non-techies really get with it, and then, they used the computers in very restricted specific ways.

I agree, business has never been focused on pretty. However, as your company’s dress code probably attests, businesses also frequently care about the appearance of things that just don’t make a difference. My company’s “business casual” policy requires that I wear socks. Why do they care? Nobody knows, but my boss points it out whenever I wear deck shoes to the office.

Go figure.

There is one aspect of HTML e-mail that I will admit is a huge issue: security. Unfortunately, someone can send you an HTML that embeds some nasty stuff in it. Whether it’s a tiny GIF (like the smiley face that you’ll see on every WordPress page) to track the number of page hits, or something more sinister and privacy invading, HTML e-mail allows the sender to do things that most of us are not going to be comfortable with. (Fortunately, most modern e-mail apps can block graphics embedded in a message, but still allow you to read the content and decide if you want to then view the graphics.)

Love Your Reader, As Yourself
Years ago, I learned that for a writer, there is no substitute for “caring about the reader,” but unfortunately, most technical people don’t have the time (or want to expend the time) to learn how to explain themselves to a non-technical audience. More specifically, we (techies) don’t feel that the audience is worth this expenditure of time.

As a project manager, one of the most valuable skills I learned was to communicate effectively with the technical people (TP) on my team, and then turn around and explain to the non-technical people (NTP) in our organization what the heck the TP were talking about, and why it’s important. I learned to do this, in large part, because I have respect for people on both sides of the equation, and take the time to understand what they’re saying, and communicate in their terms.

Unfortunately, there is traditionally very little respect from either of these camps, going either way. As long as we TP assume that we’re talking to PHB’s, Boneheads, and Golden Parachute Weenies(tm), it’s going to show in the way we write. If instead, we presume NTP to be intelligent, but with a different (but still valuable) skillset, and keep that mindset at the forefront, our consideration for their intelligence will come through and so will our message.

Testing: Lotus 123
Here’s a test. Take your last technical proposal, and consider how you would structure and word it for (insert name of close, non-technical relative such as Mom, Dad, etc.). Then, write it that way, but without the analogies to Mom’s wonderful cooking, or Dad’s “Viagra incident.” I guarantee that if you respect the audience, and don’t talk down to them, you will improve your writing and communication.

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