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Re: Documentation Metrics

On Mon, 16 Oct 2000, Sandy Harris wrote:

> "David C. Merrill, Ph.D." wrote:
> > I am working on the set of metrics to be used in reviewing our documents.
> One thing I'd wonder about is whether any useful metrics can be
> generated automatically.
> There's a whole literature on readability indexes based on statistical
> analysis of things like words per sentence, letters per word. Some of

Yes, we could create readability indexes fairly easily. Calculation of
word frequencies and their statistical analysis is indeed one possible
approach. And there are plenty of tools for doing that. However, I feel
there may be a little confusion here, correct me if I am wrong. I don't
think it is 'readability' as such that we are looking for. We are looking
for 'text accessibility'.

By text accessibility I mean that which makes texts easy or difficult to
understand. An accessible text is one which is easy to understand; an
inaccessible one - one which is difficult. Now, this may sound like a
self-evident distinction but is actually a major turning point in
contemporary linguistic research. Readability formulae as objective,
statistical methods have proven their inadequacy in answering the basic
question: why is one text difficult to understand while another one is

And the answer lies herein: readability formulae never take the reader
into account. They examine the text in a vacuum, as if there was no life
outside it, whereas text accessibility focuses on the reading process as
an interaction between the text and the reader. The reader's background
and subject knowledge are crucial factors. That is why David is absolutely
correct when he starts his metrics with such criteria as 'Audience Type'
and 'Audience Technical Sophistication' and includes macro level
structures like 'Style'. In fact, I couldn't be happier to see those on
the list :)

Please, don't misunderstand me. I don't mean to depreciate the valuable
work done by readability analysts. On the contrary, once we acknowledge
what questions readability formulae can and cannot answer we know where
they leave us short. Then we can expand the metrics exactly like David

My two euro cents worth... :)



Antti Hietala
Technical Writer

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