User Assistance: Writing for a High-Context Culture

By Mike Hughes

Published: May 19, 2008

“While technical communicators tend to write in a low-context style, user assistance occurs in high-context situations.”

Jean-Luc Dumont is a respected authority in international technical communications, but he is most renowned for a particularly entertaining presentation he gives about road signs. This genre of tight communications that are written for small spaces and meant to read by users in motion holds many lessons for those of us who write user assistance.

Especially enlightening is the distinction Jean-Luc makes between high-context cultures and low-context cultures and how that difference in cultures influences the language of road signs. While technical communicators tend to write in a low-context style, user assistance occurs in high-context situations. So, in this column, I’ll discuss the need to reexamine how we write user assistance in light of this cultural proclivity.

High Context and Low Context

Jean-Luc points out—nonjudgmentally—that the American culture is a low-context culture. Figure 1 shows one of Jean-Luc’s examples that makes his point most vividly. I see this kind of sign several times a week in my own neighborhood.

Figure 1—A sign for a low-context culture

A sign for a low-context culture

“In low-context cultures, the assumption is that people know only what you have explicitly told them, and anything that is not expressly prohibited is allowed.”

This is a typically American-style road sign, because in low-context cultures, the assumption is that people know only what you have explicitly told them, and anything that is not expressly prohibited is allowed. On the other hand, people in high-context cultures do not need to be told not to hit pedestrians, because not hurting people is part of the cultural value system, and the assumption is that this guideline applies to traffic scenarios as well. In a low-context culture, it is apparently not only necessary to state this rule, it needs the further status of being law—versus a general guideline for drivers to follow or ignore at their discretion.

The Culture of Technical Writing

What we consider to be good technical writing often reflects an American cultural perspective. One facet of this cultural orientation is that technical writing tends to use a low-context style. Most notably, we tend to write user assistance as if users have never seen the user interface we are explaining. Secondly, we tend to write user assistance as if users have never even used software before. But users rarely go to Help before they have tried to accomplish a task on their own first, and most users today have extensive experience using software and are familiar with the standard ways of interacting with user interfaces. So a user interface is a high-context artifact—one a user has already seen before reading our documentation and that uses rules and conventions the user already knows.

“A user interface is a high-context artifact.”

Discussion of a previous column I wrote for UXmatters called “Procedures: The Sacred Cow Blocking the Road” illuminates the contrast between low-context and high-context perspectives. In that column, I gave an example of a two-column choice table that describes the purpose of each option in a user interface. The name of a user interface element is in the first column, and a description of its function is in the second. One reader, TC Makinen, made the following comment:

“Although I like the choice table as a way of simplifying the presentation of procedures, the descriptions in your example aren’t clear. For example, for the Comment option, the description reads ‘Provides a description of the policy,’ which sounds to me as though the description is generated by the software instead of by the user.”

In the actual user interface, it is clear that “the Comment option” is a text box—something Makinen did not know, because I had not shown the user interface in my example. But a user probably would have known that, because users come to Help from the user interface and only after they have encountered difficulty. Using Jean-Luc’s terminology, the text “Provides a description of the policy” takes a high-context approach to writing, whereas an alternative like “Use this field to type a description of the policy” would take a low-context approach. My point is that a user who is defining a policy and encounters a Comment text box is not going to sit and wonder who fills it in. Yet we tend to document such elements as though they would.

A further advantage of moving to a high-context style is that we can eliminate interaction verbiage that does not add value, such as “Select the…” from descriptions of drop-down lists, radio buttons, and check boxes; “Click the…” from descriptions of command buttons; and “Type the…” from descriptions of text boxes. In high-context writing, we can assume prior exposure to conventional user interface interactions.

Guidelines for High-Context Writing

“As user assistance moves from Help files into the user interface itself … the need for a high-context writing style increases.”

As user assistance moves from Help files into the user interface itself, as in the case of embedded user assistance, users’ awareness of context becomes even greater, and the need for a high-context writing style increases. As with road signs, the space in a user interface is limited and the user is moving—at least his or her focus and attention are.

Here are some guidelines for high-context writing as it applies to user assistance:

  • If the subject is obvious, do not restate it. Sentence fragments should abound in descriptions of user interface elements.
  • Examples beside text boxes need no explanation. For example, (555) 555-5555 next to a phone number box is enough. There is no need for Example: (555) 555-5555 or, worse, Use the following format: (555) 555-5555.
  • If a user interaction is obvious or well known, you do not have to specify it. Users know what to do with radio buttons, drop-down lists, and the like.
  • Just because one or two elements in a user interface need explanation does not mean you must explain every element.
  • Context-sensitive Help topics and messages should assume a reader is coming directly from the user interface and, therefore, should use a high-context style. If users get to Help through an index or table of contents rather than from the interface, they are not reading to do, and the how-to topic isn’t really for them anyway.

Safety messages are a necessary exception to high-context writing, especially for American documentation—mainly from the practical consideration that product liability law is a low-context environment. This means we must tell consumers not to spill freshly made coffee on their laps, because it is hot, or not to use electrical appliances while sitting in a bathtub.

Beyond User Assistance

In addition to the obvious need to write user assistance in a high-context style, we should examine our off-line documentation to see whether our low-context style is getting in the way of good communication. The slippery slope of low-context communication starts with telling users they must type their first name in an empty text box that is labeled First name and ends up with us telling people not to knock pedestrians down with their cars.

10 Comments

Low-context and high-context societies seem a very poor way to distinguish between cultures. Firstly, how can you lump a culture as huge and diverse as American culture and then compare it with others on this one very flat dimension of high and low context.

These signs carry with them a whole set of cultural assumptions and are supposed to be read in a particular way. For instance, font and placement and materials use in these signs are often very similar. These cultural assumptions that come with the signage would seem to imply that there is high context around the use and interpretation of these signs. Not low context at all. Is there ever such a thing as low context? The apparent low context is that of a cultural bias toward American reading of these signs as straight-forward and simple. However, they are complex cultural artifacts with a high context, which is, of course, subconsciously passed over from an American user of the signs.

While I agree with elements of your discussion, I must disagree with your basic theme. I strive to write documentation for the lowest-common denominator and nearly always do not manage to simplify enough.

Invariably, I am met with someone who comes across page 2, which reads in its entirety:

Do not do [this]. If you do this, data will be lost!

And does it anyway. Or users who close the window with the X in the upper-right corner—Windows system—but tells you they’re using File > Quit, and neither you nor they can figure out why the export procedures keyed to the Quit command are not executing.

In these cases, low context is your only recourse. Spell Everything Out.

While such a hyper-simplistic approach may prove aggravating to your high-context users, few of those, I’ve found, tend consult the damned manual in the first place.

Indeed… I remember well my amusement, years ago when I relocated for a while to the USA, at the statement I’d see at the corner of many envelopes: “Place Stamp Here. The Post Office will not deliver mail without postage.

Back home in Israel, this would be utterly incongruous. Nobody would expect that the post office might deliver without a stamp—what are they, suckers?—and nobody would need to be told where a stamp should be placed.

The definition of US culture as low context now puts this in a clearer perspective.

Interesting article, Mike. I think your guidelines for high-context writing provide great tips for writers of context-sensitive and embedded user assistance. They also provide a way of making best use of the—often very restricted—time that user assistance writers have available to them by focusing on the problems and questions that users may have and eliminating the unnecessary.

A point about localization: Writing in sentence fragments could cause problems for translators unless they are also working in context.

—Matthew

Interesting comments to date. Thanks for your inputs. A couple of responses: “Low-context and high-context societies seem a very poor way to distinguish between cultures.” It’s just one dimension. I found it most useful in understanding why technical communicators document everything. Jean-Luc could be wrong in saying that low-context is an American trait, but I do think it is a common trait among technical writers.

“Invariably, I am met with someone who comes across page 2, which reads in its entirety: Do not do [this]. If you do this, data will be lost!”

  1. Change the UI so they can’t “do this.”
  2. Get it off of page 2 and in context—in the UI.

“Writing in sentence fragments could cause problems for translators unless they are also working in context.”

Interesting point, Matthew. I need to think about this some more, but my first reaction is that too much translation happens out of context. As a former translator, in Arabic, for the Army Security Agency, I was taught that translators do more than switch words in language A for words in language B. Investigating context is part of the job. With today’s emphasis on machine translation, I see that changing, and I must accommodate the economics of global markets.

I think choosing high-context over low-context makes a design/branding statement at the expense of usability.

Yes, I could guess that a date stamp on a Web page tells me when the content was posted, but there’s an outside chance that it is the date of the last update, the date of the last comment, the current date, an error, or so on. Labeling the date will probably improve usability by removing that ambiguity, and not labeling it will probably give a less cluttered design.

I’d definitely argue for labeling, since consistent, well-chosen labels will be processed a few times and then will fade into the background of the site and carry very little cognitive weight. Then again, I’m commenting on a post on a usability site, so it’s probably a given I prioritize usability over aesthetics.

I do think lumping whole societies as low-context and high-context is too simplistic. An argument for explaining things in detail can be made just because a country has many immigrants, and we don’t all have the same history or the common knowledge of a particular country or town or government. I’d like to comment on Nathan’s example of the post office printing “Place Stamp Here. The Post Office will not deliver without a stamp.” When I was growing up in the U.S., it was perfectly okay to not put a stamp on an envelope. It would just be delivered with postage due. That message is now printed to remind an older population that if you forget to put a stamp on the envelope, it will no longer make it to its destination.

I certainly agree with Mike. We should write user assistance text with the assumption that the user is looking at the interface. This means that there is no need to state what the interface makes clear. In response to Ted Bush’s point, I would agree that “what the interface makes clear” may differ from one group of users to the next. But if your problem is that your users aren’t paying enough attention to your user assistance text, brevity will help. The high-context/low-context idea is a convenient metaphor, but we’re not really talking about cultural differences.

I think this is a helpful way to characterize readers of instructions, if not entire country cultures. The main point seems to me that people frame what they read or interact with. They carry their own context in their heads. I can see applying the high/low-context distinction to beginners and expert users of a system, which I think is Ted Bush’s point.

The nature of the contextual information is interesting. Of the two contentious examples above: one is about authority and the other about repercussions.

  • The thing that surprised me—a Canadian—about the Stop for pedestrians sign was that the sign maker felt a need to indicate the legal authority—By state law.
  • The postage stamp example is not about what to do, but about what will happen if you don’t do it.

So perhaps much of the high-context information is really metainformation. It’s about the information, but not of it.

I simply cannot learn using low-context instructions. Period. It does not matter if the surrounding contextual meaning is known or not. It is easier for me to use common sense and connect the dots independently rather than have someone else think for me. It would not matter about generation either. A new instruction is a new instruction for everyone. So, I agree with Nathan Zeldes’s reasoning. To me, low context is a time waster, and it dumbs me down. I zone out in the midst of instructions, resulting in my not performing at my best. Then, instructors assume that I am slow to learn when little do they know—unless it is spelled out for them—that I have been placed in advanced courses all of my life. For example, no one ever taught me that 0 multiplied by any number equaled to zero. When a child, I returned to my primary school classroom from an illness and aced that multiplication exam. I think the same way at age 45.

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