Pattern recognition for technical communicators

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Pattern recognition is an essential mental strategy for acquiring and disseminating knowledge, though we are usually not aware that we do it. By understanding what pattern recognition is and how it …

Pattern recognition is an essential mental strategy for acquiring and disseminating knowledge, though we are usually not aware that we do it. By understanding what pattern recognition is and how it works, technical communicators can employ it to efficiently acquire information, structure deliverables and help their users to use effective documentation efficiently.

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  • From the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal article:On Christmas morning, Lockport resident Paul Kulniszewski went to cut up an orange as part of his breakfast. … To Kulniszewski, the inside of the orange resembled Jesus Christ on a crucifix with his mother Mary below.Kulniszewski showed the orange to family members and gave pictures of it to a number of people. … As for the actual orange, Kulniszewski sealed it in a container with resin so to preserve the fruit. That way others can see the orange and it can be passed down to the next generation."I just feel I was meant to share it," Kulniszewski said. "I attend (church) regularly but I'm nothing special. It just means someone else is in control."
  • Note how we don‘t just determine the individual elements, but also the dividers, the punctuation, and assign meaning to them. Bold is for volume number. Regular number is pages. Regular in () is year.
  • ... Oneofthemosthelpfuland noble thingswecan do istomakepatternsmoreobvioustoourusersandcustomers, so theydon‘thaveto do thatworkas well - on top whattheyweretryingto do whentheycameuserassistance...
  • If we understand better what happens here and how, we can apply these processes more efficiently. And we can avoid some of the risks. We can hot-wire our understanding and hack our writing.
  • Pattern recognition occurs unconsciously when we encounter more or less similar items in proximity, in space or in time.Consider this example: Suppose you walk through the country and encounter cows and horses in the space of a pasture. Looking closely, you can distinguish two different kinds of animals by their horns, hooves (even- vs. odd-toed ungulates) and tails, even if the cows are different in size and color, and so are the horses.
  • We start off with a bundle of data and we have to quickly make sense of it. Things that aren’t close together might not be related to each other.
  • We could quickly say “oh, look at all this stuff together in the middle — that can all be one thing” …
  • … but clearly there are more complicated things going on here. We can segment according to similarity, which might mean on the basis of shape …
  • … or might be about shading.
  • … we accumulate evidence over time.
  • … and if we encounter that evidence more spaced out over time, it takes us longer to detect a pattern. We see this in neuroscience, at the level of individual neurons, and we also see it in human behavior. If you’re studying a second language and only look at your materials once a week, or once a month, it will take you a lot longer to internalize the rules of grammar and build a vocabulary, because the rate at which you are accumulating evidence is slower, and the incipient connections in your brain grow cold, if you like, when they’re not regularly maintained.While we’re coming at this from a tech authoring perspective, it’s also worth thinking about the end user here. If they can’t collect much evidence, or it only comes to them in dribs and drabs over time, they might not be able to discern the patterns in your documentation/user assistance/etc.
  • You can see this happening in the brain’s primary visual cortex as we recognize visual patterns, building up fragments to become lines, surfaces, and objects.Pattern recognition happens as the third stage of a bottom-up process of human perception, after sensation and perceptual organization (Zimbardo 262, 294). We receive a sensation from the outside world, for example, we see white, tan, brown and black masses on a floor of green. We organize the sensation perceptually: We take apart the image to distinguish standing or slowly moving animals from each other and from the pasture. (The brain can form “object representations that are invariant with respect to the dramatic fluctuations occurring on the [eye’s] retina”, suggests Olshausen, 4716.)Pattern recognition: We analyze the animals to identify similarities and differences by which to sort, order and label them. Thus we distinguish cows from horses. That is only half the story, however.
  • I guess most of us would recognize this as a chair. Even though most of us probably have never seen this particular chair.The reason we recognize it is the second approach in pattern recognition.
  • This is the shortcut approach when we can trust our knowledge of systems and context.We’ve evolved language in order to communicate the abstract rules conferred by experience. In other words, if I learn a rule, I can tell you about it and now you know the rule too.Professionally, having done lots of feature analysis is what counts as experience. In tech comm, for example, it makes the difference between an experienced tech communicator who quickly realizes how to separate information into concept and procedural topics.Unless she has similar experience from remembering hundreds of past topics… One particular way of top-down processing is called “template matching” where you store a generic idea of what a chair, a horse and a cow looks like in your memory as a template and match it to something you haven’t seen before.
  • Here’s a quick contrasting view of the two approaches to illustrate the differences.We apply both processes, switching back and forth really fast and without deliberate choice.But do they always work? Let’s look at another example…
  • It’s art! It’s in the museum of modern art in Frankfurt, where I’m from. And the title is not helping!But really: What IS it?It is also a chair. More precisely, it is…
  • It’s part of a chair! It’s a chair by Arne Jacobsen.
  • It TOTALLY emphasizes context – and if the context is modern art, all bets are off, and you don’t know WHAT you’re looking at!Now for the practical application.
  • There are (at least) five ways to apply pattern recognition in tech comm. And my claim is we can tweak how we work and what we produce if we know about pattern recognition and apply its two strategies of bottom-up and top-down processing consciously.None of these ideas are new or revolutionary. And they can’t be, because we use them anyway; they are part of our mental inventory. The point is to understand these strategies better and to use them deliberately, for faster and more effective writing.We’ll go through each of the stages now.
  • You have incomplete, outdated documentation plus a couple of SMEs who vaguely remember additional bits and pieces.Tease out all similarities until you arrive at segments.
  • Test top-down, check if your segments are reliable and complete: - Are there concept topics to back up procedural topics?- Is there information about exception handling?
  • You know you have to start writing now, or you’ll never make it by the delivery deadline. Then it’s a safe bet to start with the segments that have most elements and the most similar elements in them. Describe what hangs together first. Trust “safety in numbers” and start with topics that have the most buddies and then build outwards.
  • Group topics, e.g., by type: concepts vs. task vs. reference Structure each type in a recognizable, reliable way, e.g., in tasks:IntroductionPrerequisitesActual stepsExpected resultsException handlingIn headings, consider usingNoun phrases for concept topicsImperatives for task topicsGerunds for processes which are parents of several tasksThis is basically thinly veiled praise for what’s known as “parallelism”.The cool thing is that it works, even without explanation, even if most users never spell out the underlying rules.
  • Resisting patterns: Commas or spelling in English, articles and plurals in German - so not everything can be understood with pattern recognition. Neither in languages, nor in tech comm.Contexts, for example, national cultures: Germans like top-down; Japanese prefer bottom-up. - In art, all bets are off… Don’t forget that our way of creating documentation is very different from how customers use it. And it’s our job to make it easy to use…!

Transcript

  • 1. PATTERN RECOGNITIONFOR TECHNICAL COMMUNICATORS Kai Weber @techwriterkai STC Summit, 23 May 2012
  • 2. PROGRAM1. Who am I and what do I know?2. What is pattern recognition?3. Why should tech communicators care?4. The pattern recognition experience5. Pattern recognition in technical communication
  • 3. WHAT IS PATTERN RECOGNITION?Lockport Union-Sun & Journal, 8 January 2010:Paul Kulniszewski„s breakfast orange on Christmas 2009http://lockportjournal.com/local/x306495538/VISION-Resident-cuts-orange-open-and-sees-image-of-Jesus-and-Mary/
  • 4. WHAT IS PATTERN RECOGNITION?Part of human perception:1. Receive sensation and organize it.2. Recognize patterns.3. Formalize patterns as rules to interpret and decide.
  • 5. HOW ABOUT AN EXAMPLE? Aardvark, J.R. (1980). Ants, and how to eat them. Journal of Orycteropodidae Studies, 80, 11-17. Barker, R. (1982). Rum babas, and what to do if you’ve got them. Reading: Goodnight From Him. Haley, W. (1955). Rock Around The Clock. New York: Decca. Izzard, E. (1998). Cake or Death? Gateaunomics, 10, 195-196. Lemur, R.-T. (2010). Strepsirrhinoplasty. Antananarivo: Raft Press. Leonard, E. (1996). Out of Sight. New York: Harper. Shorty, G. (in press). Okay, so they got me. Los Angeles: Cadillac.
  • 6. HOW ABOUT AN EXAMPLE? Aardvark, J.R. (1980). Ants, and how to eat them. Journal of Orycteropodidae Studies, 80, 11-17. Barker, R. (1982). Rum babas, and what to do if you’ve got them. Reading: Goodnight From Him. …Rule set1. Last name, initial(s). (Year of publication).2. If it‟s an article: Title, journal title, volume, pages.3. If it‟s a book: Title. City: Publisher.We learn patterns by examples – or by rules.
  • 7. WHY SHOULD TECH COMMUNICATORS CARE?We do it anyway…1. When we gather information  Reading specs and designs  Interviewing subject-matter experts2. When we create and order information  Write topics  Structure topics into deliverables
  • 8. WHY SHOULD TECH COMMUNICATORS CARE?We do it anyway, so we might as well do it smartly! If we make sense of our subject more efficiently… If we structure better what we need to convey… … we can provide better documentation!
  • 9. THE PATTERN RECOGNITION EXPERIENCE IN SPACEPhoto by Santiago Masquelet Photo by Jure Šućurhttp://www.sxc.hu/photo/1001312 http://www.sxc.hu/photo/784032
  • 10. THE PATTERN RECOGNITION EXPERIENCE IN SPACE d * d d d t * * d dd * ** d t t t t * * * d t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t
  • 11. THE PATTERN RECOGNITION EXPERIENCE IN SPACE d * d d d t * * d dd * ** d t t t t * * * d t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t
  • 12. THE PATTERN RECOGNITION EXPERIENCE IN SPACE d * d d d t * * d dd * ** d t t t t * * * d t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t
  • 13. THE PATTERN RECOGNITION EXPERIENCE IN SPACE d * d d d t * * d dd * ** d t t t t * * * d t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t
  • 14. THE PATTERN RECOGNITION EXPERIENCE IN SPACE d * d d d t * * d dd * ** d t t t t * * * d t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t t
  • 15. THE PATTERN RECOGNITION EXPERIENCE IN SPACE Installation d * d d d t *Reference * d dd Paid version * ** d t t t t * * * d t t t t t t t t t tFree version t t t t t t t
  • 16. THE PATTERN RECOGNITION EXPERIENCE IN TIME Photo by Richard Cop http://www.sxc.hu/photo/326144
  • 17. THE PATTERN RECOGNITION EXPERIENCE IN TIME * * * * !
  • 18. THE PATTERN RECOGNITION EXPERIENCE IN TIME * * * * * * !
  • 19. HOW DOES PATTERN RECOGNITION WORK?Bottom-up processing1. Experience and organize2. Match similarities3. Segment into groups… building up a representation from elements.
  • 20. HOW DOES PATTERN RECOGNITION WORK? What is this? How do you know?
  • 21. HOW DOES PATTERN RECOGNITION WORK?Top-down processing1. Know general concept and rules2. Contextualize them3. Apply them… searching for confirmation by “template matching”.
  • 22. HOW DOES PATTERN RECOGNITION WORK?Bottom-up Top-down No prior knowledge  Uses prior knowledge Elements  concepts  Concepts  elements Emphasizes relations  Emphasizes context Slow, but usually correct  Quick, but sometimes wrong
  • 23. HOW DOES PATTERN RECOGNITION WORK? What is this? It‟s part of a chair!Martin Boyce:Untitled, 2002.http://www.mmk-frankfurt.de/de/sammlung/werkdetailseite/?werk=2002%2F112
  • 24. HOW DOES PATTERN RECOGNITION WORK?Martin Boyce: Arne Jacobsen:Untitled, 2002. Chair 3107, c.1952.http://www.mmk-frankfurt.de/de/sammlung/ http://www.moma.org/explore/collection/indexwerkdetailseite/?werk=2002%2F112
  • 25. HOW DOES PATTERN RECOGNITION WORK?Bottom-up Top-down No prior knowledge  Uses prior knowledge Elements  concepts  Concepts  elements Emphasizes relations  Emphasizes context Slow, but usually correct  Quick, but sometimes wrong
  • 26. PATTERN RECOGNITION IN TECH COMM To make sense of unknown subject matter To overcome tech writer‟s block and start writing To chunk topics To find reuse opportunities To help your readers navigate and understand
  • 27. PATTERN RECOGNITION IN TECH COMMTo make sense of unknown subject matterScattered, unreliable, incomplete information? Gather all pieces Match similarities and templates Group into segments
  • 28. PATTERN RECOGNITION IN TECH COMMTo make sense of unknown subject matterStructured legacy documentation? Test structure and completeness Analyze features
  • 29. PATTERN RECOGNITION IN TECH COMMTo overcome writer’s block and start writingIncomplete, inconsistent information? Start bottom-up with similar items as “seeds”.
  • 30. PATTERN RECOGNITION IN TECH COMMTo chunk topicsSimilar topics?Coffee 3000 User Manual Coffee 3000 User Manual1. The Coffee 3000 machine 1. About good coffee1.1 Introduction 1.1 The Coffee 30001.2 Buying the right coffee 1.2 Suitable coffee roasts1.3 Water descaling 1.3 Water quality and temperature2. Coffee maker 2. Brewing good coffee2.1 Functions and features 2.1 Set up Coffee 30002.2 Espresso 2.2 Make espresso2.3 Foaming milk 2.3 Make caffe latte2.4 Making cappuccino 2.4 Make cappuccino
  • 31. PATTERN RECOGNITION IN TECH COMMTo find reuse opportunitiesSimilar topics? Identify how you can segment information for reuse. Coffee 3000 User Manual 1. About good coffee 1.1 The Coffee 3000 1.2 Suitable coffee roasts 1.3 Water quality and temperature Make cappuccino 2. Brewing good coffee 1. Make espresso. 2.1 Set up Coffee 3000 2. Foam milk. 2.2 Make espresso 3. Sprinkle with cocoa. 2.3 Make caffe latte … 2.4 Make cappuccino
  • 32. PATTERN RECOGNITION IN TECH COMMTo help your readers navigate Coffee 3000 User Manual 1. About good coffee 1.1 The Coffee 3000 1.2 Suitable coffee roasts 1.3 Water quality and temperature 2. Brewing good coffee 2.1 Set up Coffee 3000 2.2 Make espresso 2.3 Make caffe latte 2.4 Make cappuccino
  • 33. PATTERN RECOGNITION IN TECH COMMTo help your readers navigate and understand. Segment and structure topics. Phrase headings in a consistent, recognizable way. Table of contents is top-down. Search and index are bottom-up, template matching aids.
  • 34. FINAL WORDS OF ADVICE AND WARNING Patternicity: Humans are addicted to meaning. Some patterns refuse to be recognized Pattern recognition occurs in contexts Creating tech comm is often a top-down process … ... but using it is often bottom-up searching!
  • 35. THANK YOU! KEEP IN TOUCH!@techwriterkai kaiweber.wordpress.com