Sunday, January 13, 2013

Quick comprehension and information density

I've become a big fan of the PechaKucha format for almost all types of presentations. I'm also a fan of bite-sized information from other sources like the Khan Academy and MinutePhysics - the barrier to entry for complex topics is low and I highly recommend that you check them out. I find that my attention rarely wavers from the topic being discussed - primarily due to the time constraints and talent of the presenters.

I've been inspired to incorporate some similar principles into other formats (technical documents for example). It's a fun challenge for the author to work within these types of constraints and the benefits of a focused and understanding audience should be obvious.

Here is what I set out to achieve, whether I'm giving a presentation in 20x20 format or authoring a high level design document:
  • Keep the audience focused
  • Ensure high information density with no filler
  • Ensure a high amount of cohesiveness within the topic being discussed
  • Aim to gain comprehension in a short amount of time as possible

The 20x20 format (20 images, 20 seconds per image) provides a really good framework for guiding the author to the goals outlined above: You're forced to focus on the topic, you have a limited amount of time to discuss the topic (6 minutes), and you have a limited area to visualize your concepts (20 images).

For technical documentation (like high level software architecture documents), here are some constraints I'm going to try imposing on myself and my team to gauge how effective it is. A document must:
  • Be able to be read and understood in under 15 minutes. This constrains the length of document.
  • Be highly cohesive - all parts of the document must relate to the central concept being discussed.
  • Be independent - while it's OK for the document to reference other documents, reading those references must not be a requirement to the understanding of the topic of the document being read.
There are parallel's here to good code design (e.g. single responsibility principle or highly cohesive, loosely coupled classes). I'm not sure if that's a coincidence or a sign of a universal guideline of the universe!

Like the 20x20 format, there will be challenges for authors to trim complex concepts down to these formats, but it's a worthwhile quest as the benefits are very large indeed.

I can't wait to attend my first organized PechaKucha event here in Toronto later this month.

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