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Presenting Complicated Information

by J. M. Haile

We consider here alternative ways for presenting complicated technical material. Our objective is to make the presentation easy for the reader to grasp. Unfortunately, there is no one "correct" way that works best for all readers: different forms of a presentation work better for different readers. Consequently, the writer must be aware of the alternatives and select from those the one that will be best for the intended reader. This is a nontrivial task. The general rule of thumb is that readers who are unfamiliar with the material will need more help than those who are well-versed in the material.

To have a particular situation, we consider the common engineering problems associated with bringing a new product to market or bringing a new process on-line. The design conundrum is to balance product quality against production costs and production time. In his book on The Design of Everyday Things, D.A. Norman points out that low cost, high quality, and short production time are mutually exclusive--you can't have it all. So a reasonably complicated situation arises when the engineer must explain to management and marketing how to choose from design options.

For example, let's say you are the engineer in charge of developing a new product. You have arrived at two basic designs: model A of moderate-to-high quality and model B of moderate-to-low quality. Each model can be produced in three versions: deluxe, with many extra features; standard, with some extra features; and economy, with only basic features. So you have six possible products that could be made: deluxe model A, standard model A, economy model A, deluxe model B, standard model B, and economy model B. The choice is to be made by considering the constraints imposed by production costs, production time, and desired quality.

Paragraph Form

When production time must be short, then build the standard A model, unless production costs must also be low. In the latter case requiring short production time and low costs, build the economy B model. If low production cost is the only constraint, then build the standard B model for low-quality applications and build the economy A model for higher-quality applications. If neither time nor cost is limited, then build the deluxe B model, unless very high quality is required, in which case build the deluxe A model.

Decision Tree
Decision Tree
Segmented Paragraph
  • If short production time is the only limitation,
  • . . . build the standard A model.
  • If low production cost is the only limitation,
  • . . . build the standard B model when quality is unimportant, but
  • . . . build the economy A model when high quality is needed.
  • If production time must be short and production costs must be low,
  • . . . build the economy B model.
  • If there are no limits on either costs or production time,
  • . . . build the deluxe B model when quality is not important, but
  • . . . build the deluxe A model for high-quality applications.
Table
Constraints Quality Not Important Quality Important
Short production time the only limit Standard A model Standard A model
Low production cost the only limit Standard B model Economy A model
Both cost & time must be limited Economy B model Economy B model
Neither cost nor time is limited Deluxe B model Deluxe A model
Discussion

The paragraph form uses the least amount of paper and is easiest for the writer to create, but it is the most difficult for the reader to comprehend. Those readers having little familiarity with the situation will probably find the decision tree most useful; however, technically uninformed readers may not understand how a decision tree works. Technically sophisticated readers would likely prefer the table. But note how well the segmented paragraph seems to work for this situation: it combines the best features of the paragraph and the table.

You might want to explore other graphic/typographical possibilities for solving this example problem. Remember there is no generally best solution: the writer must match the presentation to the needs of the reader.

References

This discussion is based on ideas contained in David Crystal, Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987.

The engineer's conundrum is discussed in Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, Doubleday, New York, 1988.