Why it doesn’t make sense to chew people out for not reading the help page

October 12, 2011

(This article was first published on Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science » R, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

Karl Broman writes:

Barry Rowlingson gave an interesting talk at UseR 2011, “Why R-help must die!” He suggested the Q-and-A type sites Stack Overflow (on programming) and Cross Validated (on statistics), both part of Stack Exchange.

I haven’t used R-help recently but I do occasionally send people there. Just to see what was going on there, I clicked on over, did a little searching, and found this delight from a renowned professor of R. There’s something about the “please” there that just makes it all that much more special. (In contrast, the advice here to “please do your homework” just seems rude.

I have a larger (or maybe smaller) point to make, though, which is about the silliness of advice to “read the damn manual” etc.

Several years ago I read a fascinating book called City by William Whyte. He and his students had gone around various public places in NYC and observed how people actually behaved—how they walked, sit, stood, and interacted.

One of Whyte’s central themes was that it does not make sense to design things as you want them to be used; rather, you have to design them so they work well as they actually are used. One of his examples was where people stand on the sidewalk. Whyte and his students noticed that people would often stop for brief conversations at the busiest spot on the sidewalk, a few feet from the corner at an intersection. The inclination of many planners would be to somehow make it difficult to stop and stand there, maybe put bumps in the sidewalk or have some annoying beeping or a sign telling people to move along. Whyte suggested that, instead, city planners should increase the area of the sidewalk at these popular spaces, for example by having them take over some of the street at the corner. Then you allow people to walk on by, in the context of existing patterns of where people like to stand.

Now let’s return to the topic above. The sad truth is, very few people read the help page. The help page is boring. Most of us would rather read People magazine, or the New York Times, or even Gawker. To chew people out for not reading the documentation is to fight the tide.

P.S. Just to be clear: I think the renowned professor is doing a useful service to the community in responding to the R-help list. And, given that he’s doing it for free, he should feel free to answer in whatever tone he’d like. I am not objecting to his tone, merely expressing my amusement. My main point in this post is to point out the fighting-the-tide nature of typical “read the manual”-style advice.

The post Why it doesn’t make sense to chew people out for not reading the help page appeared first on Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science.

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