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© Ugur Akinci
It’s writing what is most important first and what is the least important the last.
The traditional style of writing takes its time by first establishing the “base” of knowledge, similar to the way a regular pyramid would have its base at the bottom of the structure. All the other layers rest on that wide base.
Journalism has changed all that. People don’t have the time to read “introductory” materials. When they read a news story they want to understand WHAT happened FIRST, right away. This requires spilling out the most important aspects of an event first and then gradually going into the details of the event like who was involved, what were the circumstances, etc.
Technical writing has borrowed the inverted pyramid approach from journalism. The fourth edition of Microsoft Manual of Style, for example, recommends “inverted pyramid” as a good way to write technical documents.
In practice, this would require mentioning the most crucial aspects of a piece of software or “system” right away. These would be the kind of “system prerequisites” or warning items that the user needs to pay attention to in order to prevent an accident or worse.
If you’re writing a user guide for an electronic consumer product, you have to make a list of “BEFORE YOU PLUG IT IN” items and “print” it on the first page.
For example, “voltage of operation” is one such item since plugging in a 110 volt gadget into a 220 volt socket will burn it right away.
However, as everything goes online these days and that creates “multiple pathways” to every “page” of a document, the inverse pyramid model may not work as well as it did with documents printed on paper. For one thing, together with the “book” metaphor, the whole concept of “a page” is disappearing real fast.
When we provide the user flexibility to access any “topic” right away regardless of its location within the document, how can we make sure that the most important information is read first? That’s a challenge that all information designers need to face at an increasing frequency in the future.