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Tailoring for individuals

The issue is: should we tailor materials for different people?

This is a note on a question that came up in class (in January 2003) from, I think, Deborah Forbes about my contradictory opinons on minimal manuals and learning styles. Here is what I think on reflection.

A) With minimal manuals, the argument for tailoring is that the relevant variation between people is what they know; and this matters centrally to the minimal manuals technique because if they know more, you can say less, and that greatly improves usability of the minimal manuals (smaller, easier to navigate, easier to read and pick out what you need) BUT if they know less you must include more, despite the disadvantages, because without sufficient information the user will be stuck and the minimal manuals fail.

B) With learning styles, it is true you can measure diffs between learners. It is very seldom done, but it is just possible to run experiments that show that for 2 styles of learner, and 2 particular alternative materials, learning depends on the match of learner to material style. But not only is this seldom done, but even such experiments don't prove, or even make likely, that no possible material can support both kinds of learner well.

There are two big arguments against going with the assumption that we should tailor material to different styles. 1) We assume the opposite in most writing: not that when some people don't like it we should write a special different version for them, but that we should strive to edit our text so it works for everyone. 2) With learners, we aren't doing them a favour by letting them stick with their own style. If it is true that different styles of material exist, that demand different learning approaches, then the learners will benefit from the "study skills" or "meta-learning" training that trains them to learn from a variety of different kinds of material. If you want to join a culture you have to learn its language, not stick with your own private language. I give these arguments (but they are only arguments, not accepted widely) in:

C) Overall / synthesis.
Minimal manuals are about being useful immediately, on the spot, for short tasks and high efficiency. Learning may be about much longer time scales. I might apply the learning arguments to the training, not of ordinary computer users, but of experts and advisors: they certainly would benefit in the longer run by learning how to get information out of conventional manuals (and out of documents not written to be convenient for them).

I might apply the minimal manuals arguments to teaching short courses to everyone e.g. first aid, fire drill, etc.; but not to university degree programmes. Even so, if I had to write a notice about emergency kit to stick on the wall, I would have to try to write one notice for everyone NOT different parallel notices for people with different learning styles.

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