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HomePatterns > How to articulate concepts > Explain the concept modularly



The basic pattern

Expanded diagram of the Concept pattern

Personalizing the concept

Explain the concept modularly

If you must explain a concept, don't try to pour every point into a single long passage. Break the information up into a series of discrete modules.

But what modules make sense?

Research by major high-tech companies such as Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM suggests that when people look up an idea, a term, or a concept, they want several different types of information, in a particular sequence:

  • A general idea of what you are talking about
  • Background and context
  • Step-by-step instructions for using the concept
  • Resources for more information

The basic pattern

Here's a simple but effective pattern for articulating a concept:

  • Overview
  • Understanding
  • Using
  • Resources


Creating customer assistance that actually helps, from Hot Text: Web Writing that Works (2002, PDF, 993K, or about 18 minutes at 56K)


The Overview answers broad questions such as:

  • What is the idea? (Definition).
  • How is this concept like or unlike similar ones? (Distinctions).
  • What good is the concept to me? (Benefits).
  • Who should pay attention to the concept? (Stakeholders).

The section devoted to Understanding answers more focused questions such as:

  • Where did this concept come from? (Background).
  • How can you justify your particular interpretation, slant, angle, improvement? (Rationale).
  • Where does this concept fit into your approach? (Context).
  • What are the key pieces of this idea, if any? (Components, with diagram).
  • How does this idea relate to various processes, process sets, decisions, long-range goals? (Importance).
  • Can you give me some advice about this idea? (Best Practices).
  • Can you illustrate this idea? (Examples and non-examples).

The section on Using the concept answers questions about acting with the idea, such as:

  • When is this idea important? (Scenarios).
  • In what processes is the concept key? (Processes).
  • In what procedures is this concept key (Procedures).

Resources provides links to

  • Other concepts
  • Processes
  • Procedures
  • Troubleshooting
  • (Each section contains links to resources on other pages.)

 Expanded diagram of the Concept pattern

Personalizing the concept

If you have identified each object as an XML element, you can allow people to pick exactly what components they want to see.  Here is an example of a personalized pattern.

Joe and Josie Bishop, self-employed mountain adventure guides, want a lightweight concepts.  Objects allow them to strip down the material to the elements they care about.



Exactly what is the concept?


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