The value of presentational details

This week I was writing a business case, and for a moment caught myself wondering why I was spending so much time fiddling around with the paragraph spacing. But very quickly I remembered.

Many years ago I took part in a hack day event—24 hours to build something, 90 seconds to demonstrate it. I wanted to write a browser add-on that added a link next to an HTML table; the link would generate a JSON version of the table content, and so make it machine-parsable. That makes it useful for so many practical applications—the data is no longer trapped on a page, but free to be used elsewhere.

As I’m not a professional developer it involved a lot of pain and frustration struggling with really basic issues. But with about an hour to go I had something demonstratable—load a page, see the new link, click the link, see the JSON data at the of a URL. Job done.

By way of doing something useful in the final hour I decided to add a final trivial step: Feed the URL into the Google Charts API so that it can turn the raw data into a pretty chart. It was very little effort (Google was doing all the heavy lifting) but it looked nice.

There were about a dozen others demoing, and mine was towards the end. The audience was about sixty or so technically-literate people from outside of the tech team. I explained the rationale of my demo, showed an example web page, pointed to the new link, clicked the link, and generated the JSON. The audience murmured approval and clapped appreciatively. So I think they understood it. Then I pasted the link into the Google API to show the same data graphically. The audience gasped and the applause multiplied.

My immediate reaction (which I hope was entirely internal) was bafflement and, I have to admit, annoyance. You’re only mildly interested in the bit that took me 23 hours, I thought, and go wild for the pretty bit I just quickly tacked on the end?

But it taught me a lesson, which I’ve transferred to writing business cases and similar. Intellectually we know what’s important, and it’s real content that comes under scrutiny and wins arguments. But we are also emotional creatures, and we need help seeing the content. We are often time-poor and don’t always have the same context and background as the writer, so we benefit from help. For the writer, that means clearing the way by spelling things correctly, eliminating distracting inconsistencies, and so on. And it means providing help by adding sign-posting (clear structure, a table of contents, etc) and visual aids.

Probably none of this ensures we win our case, but it does mean we give ourselves the best chance.

Photo by Sophie

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