cartoons flow charts xkcd

Understanding Flow Charts

Need to hone your flow-chart reading skills?

Xkcd tells you all you need to know, right here.

bad explanations business jargon This American Life

Economic Meltdown Scapegoat #87: Jargon

It would be a huge stretch to blame our current economic troubles entirely on jargon, but it did play a part.

I’m thinking specifically about the mortgage bubble. I’ve brought three houses, and every time, I was overwhelmed by the unnecessarily cryptic language involved. The vast majority of people who buy and sell houses aren’t lawyers or mortgage brokers, yet all the paperwork seems designed to mystify any non-expert.

And of course, it partly is. If you can confuse somebody, it will be easier to talk them into giving you more money. The Truth in Lending Act requires lenders to provide the buyer with the terms of the loan, but, through the power of jargon, they can make that disclosure murky and intimidating. (If you’ve never been through the home-buying wringer, check out this glossary to see what I mean.)

In short, the baffling language of loans helped create an environment where many home buyers feel like they have no prayer of making sense of it all, so they just have to take an expert’s word for it. In most cases, the nearest experts are the mortgage broker and the real estate age, both of whom have (or rather, had) an economic incentive in buyers borrowing more money than is prudent.

You see similar problems in other industries. Crooked mechanics spew enough ominous car jargon that you just pay the bill to make it all go away. Mediocre programmers turn on the tech talk to explain away glitches to their non-techy clients and coworkers. Hurried doctors hurl perplexing medical terms to push you toward their preferred course of treatment.

Jargon isn’t inherently bad, of course. Among experts, it makes communication much more efficient. But more often than not, jargon that spills out into the world of non-experts is repressive. People use it as a tool to tip others off balance and make them feel small. And even if you’re not the devious sort, it’s easy to do this accidentally unless you check your jargon levels vigilantly.

(While on this subject of mortgages, let me be the zillionth explaining nerd to point to “The Giant Pool of Money” from This American Life)

bad explanations business explaining tricks

Explanatory Filenames

Here’s an Andy-Rooneyish pet peeve: filenames and subject lines that don’t take the intended audience into account.

Do you know what I hate?

For example, let’s say you’re responding to a request for proposal (RFP) for a project called The Annihilatrix. What filename do you choose for your proposal when you email it to the potential client?

In my experience, even some big agencies will call it Annihilatrix_Proposal.pdf or something similar. If you’re working on proposals for multiple possible clients, this is a logical way to keep track of all of them. But think about the guy on the other end who receives proposals from 10 different candidates on the deadline day, all with the same filename. The first thing he has to do is rename each of them. If you’re thinking about your audience, you’d save the proposal with your company’s name in the filename — e.g. TomCo-Annihilatrix_Proposal.pdf.

There are many such opportunities for better explanations in business. For example, the subject line “Marketing Plan” isn’t very helpful if you’re emaling the head of the marketing department. She might be dealing with a dozen marketing plans for different projects.

Practicing good explanation even in the small matters can really make life easier for your oh-so-busy colleagues. Pay it forward.

Common Craft good explanations how-to Paperworks video

Common Craft Explains How Common Craft Explains

And speaking of Common Craft, here’s a new post explaining how they put together Paperworks pieces. Very cool.

Common Craft good explanations Paperworks video

Why Common Craft Doesn’t Custom-Explain Anymore

ReadWriteWeb recently talked to Lee LeFever — one half of Common Craft, the black belt explainers behind the Paperworks format — about why he and his wife Sachi gave up the custom Web brand work that brought them wide acclaim. LeFever explains that while the custom client work was rewarding, they decided to focus on creating explanations for general educational use, because:

1. Custom videos do not scale. We would have to hire people to grow the company and we don’t want to hire. We are a two person company.

2. Custom videos are usually promotional. We are more comfortable with education than promotion. Another realization is that promotion is fad-driven and education isn’t as much. We see a longer lifespan for our videos in education.

3. Our goal is independence – we want to work for our own goals on our own schedule and maintain a lifestyle that supports us.

I’ve mixed promotion with explaining before and also ran into these issues. While product promotion invariably benefits from clear explanation, the drive to promote something can handicap good explaining.


[via Extraface]

comics Explainism Scott McCloud software

Scott McCloud Explains Google Chrome

I was very happy to see that Google hired Scott McCloud to help explain Chrome, their new Web browser, in comic form. McCloud’s Understanding Comics and two follow-up books are explaining and comics masterpieces. If you want something explained right, he is a very fine choice indeed.

However, the new comic ends up being uneven, in an interesting way. There are brilliant moments, but other sections are confusing and flat. The problems stem from the choice to have Google engineers, product managers, et al talk about how the product works and what their thinking has been as they developed it. According to McCloud the script actually came from the engineers:

I helped conduct interviews with about 20 engineers who worked on the project, then adapted what they said into comics form. Some paraphrasing, lots of condensation, and one or two late drop ins, but basically it was a very organic adaptation and I had a lot of latitude.

This approach seems to have led to a few problems:

1. There are too many speakers. I lost count of total talking heads, but McCloud says 20, and I see seven in the first seven panels alone. Each is introduced only with small text by their picture, listing name and occupation (e.g. “Been Goodger, Software Engineer”). Many are indistinguishable from each other, which largely defeats the purpose of having real people walk you through the product at all. If this were a documentary, you would expect to hear from a small number of key people, and you would expect to get a sense of how they related to the product. If this were an essay or press release, you would expect a small number of quotes and you would expect the writer to explain who each person is before quoting them. A nonfiction comic should go about this its own way, of course, but it’s still important to establish identity when you quote somebody.

2. Many of the speakers end up being poor explainers, at least to a general audience. For example, this panel is unnecessarily jargon-heavy, and there are no definitions provided:

Google Chrome comic panel

I wonder if McCloud considered putting himself in the comic, as in Understanding Comics and it’s follow-up books. He could be a non-techy advocate for the reader, helping the experts explain themselves by rephrasing their points and asking follow-up questions.

3. Pulling from the transcript makes the comic text-heavy and comics-light. McCloud’s books make full use of the comic form, keeping things lean and clear by hitting every concept with a perfectly balanced combination of essential words and pictures. Some sections of the Chrome comic do this very well, but others feel like an illustrated transcript. The art doesn’t have a chance to carry its share of the load.

All that being said, it’s fantastic that Google chose to explain Chrome this way. To me, the shortcomings are fascinating, because they show just how original an approach this is. There aren’t any tried-and-true standards on how to do such a thing, and I applaud McCloud and Google for charging ahead. I hope they do it again and push the form further.


[via Extraface]

comics history

Howard Zinn Does Comics

Drawn posted this video trailer for A People’s History of American Empire, a comic addendum to the classic anti-establishment history book, A People’s History of the United States.

Hooray for history via comics. As fascinating and exciting as history can be (it’s the study of everything interesting that ever happened, after all), I’ve never gotten along well with history textbooks. In fact, I used my 11th grade American history textbook as a sleep aid well into college. It rarely failed. For me, comics, documentaries and foul-mouthed HBO shows are the history delivery systems of choice.

So, I’m looking forward to reading this, especially given Zinn’s knack for enlivening history even without funny pictures. But I don’t know what to make of the trailer. Is Viggo Mortenstern trying to sound like the droning voice you hear in your head when reading something boring?

[via Drawn]


Star Trek Cutaways

Made-up things need cutaways too.

Enterprise E Main Engineering

[via Kottke]

how-to video

“Howcast” Steps Up to the How-To Challenge

Making good how-to content is incredibly difficult, and I hate it.

If you’re crafting a pure explanation — say, explaining what makes a car go — your job is not to make sure your audience groks every little detail of what all the thousands of individual pieces do. Your job is to illuminate some basic principles to form a complete thought. You go only as deep as you need to, and you can use all the metaphors and generalizations you like. It’s a delight.

If your subject is “How to fix your car,” on the other hand, you’ve set out to cover every step involved in fixing every possible problem (at least if you’re being thorough). Skip a crucial step, and your guide is potentially useless to your audience. When you’re teaching something in person, your audience will let you know when you missed something. When you’re making how-to content — articles, video, comics — it’s on you to cover just about everything somebody might need.

So, I hate making how-to stuff, and I respect people who take on such a daring mission with good intentions. Which is all a long preamble to congratulating Howcast on their launch today.

Howcast How to Trim Your Mustache

The new site, run by ex-Googlers, is basically a warehouse of short how-to videos. As the site’s “What is Howcast” video explains, anybody can start a “Wiki guide,” which “members of the Howcast network” may turn into short video pieces. Techcrunch’s post sheds a little more light:

Audience members can also look at upcoming scripts and improve them or write their own in a guided wiki portion of the site that follows the Howcast script template (introduction, instructions, tips, end with a fact). The script is then approved by Howcast, a voiceover is recorded, and Howcast farms out the production to young film school students and graduates. They get $50 for each video plus a 50/50 rev-share from any advertising. Anyone can also upload their own instructional videos to the site without going through this process.

I’ve only sampled a few videos so far, but I see some features I like. Online video is a logical choice for how-to because it lends itself to thorough demonstrations, but it’s also frustratingly linear. When you need to backtrack for a second to check something, it’s much more of a pain to rewind than to scan up a page of text and diagrams. Howcast has done a good job addressing this. Every video comes with a text-and-picture summary, a transcript, a list of tools and supplies you’ll need, and marker points for where each step appears in the video. Not bad.

Nice Web-1.0 name too. Here’s what the page looked like way back in 1999.

[Via Techcrunch]

cars cutaway diagrams

A Treasure Trove of Car Cutaways

Jake McKee over at Community Guy recently posted a link to CarType’s collection of wonderful car cutaways. I love these things, especially when they come with call-outs that give you some hope of actually figuring out what’s going on under the hood.

Autobianchi Primula Cutaway

Of all my worldly possessions, my car is the thing most in need of explaining. Like just about everybody, I don’t own anything else nearly as complicated, and don’t put nearly as much trust in any other machine. Every day, I count on all these intricate pieces banding together and keeping me alive as I zip along at ridiculous speeds. This is something that deserves to be fully understood.

Keep ’em coming CarType.