The following post first appeared as the foreword to the November 2015 issue of Southern Communicator.
Satisfice¹ (verb). To decide on and pursue a course of action that will satisfy the minimum requirements necessary to achieve a particular goal.
In this article I’m going out on a limb to ask whether there is a place in publishing for the concept of satisficing. Are there times when we need to say that a publication is good enough before we are 100% certain that it is perfect? What considerations could ever lead us, as writers and publishers, to accept less than perfection? For example, is there a difference in the perfection required for a document that will be printed and widely distributed, versus an online document that is easily updated from a central location?
In satisficing, the idea is to avoid expending resources on an optimal solution if there’s an alternative solution that is good enough.² Resources expended to prepare a perfect publication usually include:
- people with the skills and time to do editing and proofing
- enough actual time available before the deadline
- money to pay the people.
If any of these resources are scarce, an organisation might decide to satisfice, or accept “good enough” instead of “perfect”. The consequences of satisficing might be terrible or insignificant, depending on the nature of the work – so the decision should lie with the organisation. I think in our role as technical communicators, we need to be careful to make pragmatic decisions about the level of quality required to complete something, and not assume that perfection is always appropriate. If the consequences of satisficing are very unlikely to be serious, then the organisation might quite well decide that resources such as time and money can be better deployed elsewhere.
When weighing up the consequences of satisficing, there are some obvious considerations to do with subject matter. Could someone be harmed or die, or be seriously affected in other ways if aspects of the document are less than perfect? Clearly writers and publishers have ethical and indeed legal obligations not to cause harm. So let’s assume that it’s a given that you wouldn’t sanction this.
There are other reasons not to satisfice, too. If the document is being printed and widely distributed, any errors requiring corrective action will cost money, time, and effort to fix.
- Costs involved in designing, printing, and issuing corrective stickers and instructions, or in reprinting the manual, or advertising the error.
- Time and inconvenience to the end users of updating the hard copy or somehow noting and communicating the correction.
- Costs involved in any damage caused by hard copies not being updated but still being used – with the incorrect advice.
However, if there are no hard copies but only an online document delivered from one central location, the consequences of satisficing might be minimal. Someone identifies the error, and after due consultation it is fixed. There might be a release note or separate communication to users, and there might be a record of “how it was before” for the archive, but the fix itself is relatively inexpensive. And in the time that you didn’t spend seeking perfection for that document, you’ve gone on to perform other valuable work. So in this scenario, the organisation might reasonably make a pragmatic decision to seek a lower level of quality before first publication, providing identified errors can be corrected quickly.
In certain circumstances it may be perfectly reasonable to accept or request less than perfection, and we should be very clear about when perfection is “worth it” and when it isn’t.
¹ I stumbled across the word “satisfice” in a book I’m reading at the moment – The Organized Mind – Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Dan Levitin. Herbert Simon coined this term in the 1950s, and it’s an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, so I’ve happily accepted it as a word, and also as a useful concept.