Simplifying Complexity

Sometimes when I think about that task – simplifying the complex – it sounds as easy as boiling the ocean. Other times it comes as naturally to me as making toast. (Since I don’t eat toast, or even own a toaster, perhaps I should take that as a sign. It is never easy to make complex things simple. Not even making toast.)

Image result for toast

Yet every day, what I do in my work is to take cumbersome, complex tasks and recreate them in the simplest possible terms. When a huge banking system has millions of transactions per day and must synthesize them into calculable terms…I create language that can handle that. When there is an installation process that takes hundreds of functions that need to be done in seconds, not hours, I write the tasks that do that in ways that humans can understand without advanced degrees. I take complex ideas and distill them for actual people.

Brunch-MimosasMany years ago, when I was a bridesmaid for a dear friend, we hosted a brunch for the bride just a few days before her big day. In sunny Edmond, OK, just outside of Oklahoma City, we gathered around floral arrangements and mimosas for a few final gifts and sentiments. One of the things we had arranged for my dear friend was a book of recipes – not an atypical gift for a young bride. However, she was not your average young homemaker. We knew her so well that the homemade book, a collection to which we had all contributed, was filled with precious advice like “Vegetable Soup: Open can. Pour into saucepan. Do not overheat, boil, or otherwise burn.” And another great one: “Swedish Meatballs: Drive to your local Ikea. Once there, find the café. All will be well.” And perhaps the best: “Breakfast in bed: Open Pop Tarts box. Remove items from foil wrapper. Return to bed. Serves two.”

This gift indeed made the complex simple. It did not, however, lead to a gourmet life for the newlyweds. Nor did it improve her cooking skills. Hopefully she took some cooking classes or they made lots of reservations. No matter, she eventually became a successful oncologist and he a high school biology teacher. No one starved.

chocolate chip

The kitchen is the perfect example of where good writing, clean instructions, are essential to making the complex simple. Baking is an intricate act of chemistry that, if not executed properly, can yield disastrous results. The chemical process involved in baking bread is a dance of molecules that defies the odds of nature, and yet displays the beautiful synergy of both science and art.

On the other hand, missteps in the kitchen can yield fantastic new gifts, too. Who can overlook the great story on any package of Nestle chocolate chips, telling the untrue tale of Ruth Graves Wakefield and her adventures in creating Toll House cookies? (I hate to break it to you, but they were not really a mistake. Ruth was not trying to create chocolate cookies. She meant to keep those little chocolate nuggets intact, after all.)

My point is that every chocolate chip cookie recipe has a slightly different taste based upon a simple change: the recipe. Making the complex recipe ingredients: let’s face it, there are frequently at least TEN ingredients in the cookie recipe – and their variants.

Think about the variants alone:

Salt or no salt (I’ve tried it both ways, to varying result)

The # of eggs can differ

Fat – this is butter vs margarine or shortening. The variations in recipes is astonishing

A leavening agent – typically baking powder, but sometimes baking soda

The amount of flour, also the kind of flour

Whether to cream all of the fats and liquids before adding the sugars

The ratio of fats to flours

The ratio of ingredients and mixing and cooking times

All this is to say that just when you thought a simple task – making a batch of chocolate chip cookies – was just that, a simple task, you forgot that a whole lot of design and consideration went into the planning of that document. Or did it? Probably not. Your mom or her mom wrote down the recipe and you either liked her cookies or you liked someone else’s mom’s cookies. (My daughter prefers her friend Evan’s mom’s cookies to mine, if I am honest. And this is a good thing, because I shun carbohydrates and sugars like they bear the plague upon my house, so I cannot be trusted to bake anyway. I send college care packages of kale chips and they are darn good!) But when mom was perfecting that recipe, writing down all of the tweaks and updates, she was user-testing and updating the technical document. She just didn’t know it.

Even the original plan – the measuring of ingredients and the testing of oven temperature and the execution of the recipe – all of that was fragile and technical and required patience and repetition. The information that first started out on a sheet of paper next to the oven had to be user-tested and rethought once or twice. Or five times. It’s just that no one labeled it “tech writing” before they put it on a recipe card.

So now, all of these years later, while I am plotting out the schema for decoupling a conversational AI documentation scenario, I hope you will bear with me. I think one of the primary questions I will look into this week is, “Alexa, what is the ideal number of chocolate chips to put into a single cookie?” While I am researching the pure voice interactions and trying to nail down the intents and utterances and the minute specifics of how we can integrate this practice into the fiber of our lives, remember, it all started with the desire to simplify – and to make a cookie. So I’ll begin with that question about how many chips.

Once I have that answer, I will report back to you on the salt or no salt question, and then I will move on to the perfect flour ratio, and we’ll move on from there.  Or maybe I will create the ultimate kale chip recipe for a college care package.