April 8, 2008

Readability and Enterprise Architecture

User-centric EA is a strong proponent for developing information products that are useful and usable to the end-user. This is in contrast to traditional EA that often develops “artifacts” that are often difficult for the end-user to understand and apply.

There are a number of ways to make EA easier to use for the organization. One is to provide information in various levels of detail (profiles, models, and inventories), so user can drill-down to get more detailed information or roll-up to executive level summary views. Another method is to use information visualization to express information. As the adage states: “a picture is worth a thousand words.” And yet a third method is to explain the architecture in simple- to-understand language, so that it will be meaningful to both business and technology stakeholders, executives, mid-level managers, and analysts alike.

Others have expressed the need to make information more usable and readable.

The Wall Street Journal, 14 March 2008, reports on the usage of readability formulas “to quantify the ease of a work writing” to be read and understood.

For example, Microsoft Word follows a reading formula and provides a “result [that] is the supposed minimum grade level of readers who can handle the text in question.”

“Similar formulas are used by textbook publishers and in dozens of states’ guidelines for insurance policies.”

The way the formulas work is to look at readability items such as the average number of words in a sentence, the average number of syllables per word, and so on to come up with a grade reading level for the text.

Some argue that these readability formulas are flawed in that there are “more than 200 variables that affect readability. Most formulas incorporate just two, and not because they are most important, but because they are the easiest to measure.” Others argue, the different readability measures are inconsistent and can come up with scores that differ by as much as three grade levels.

The Flesch-Kincaid formula, used by Microsoft, is the most convenient and criticized. The formula was developed in 1948, revised in 1975, and again tweaked by Microsoft when it “incorporated it into Word in 1993”. The current formula provides readability scores up to grade level 14.

The idea behind all these readability formulas is to provide information that is clear, concise, and comprehensible to a wide audience. There are even templates online to help people communicate effectively in writing at the recommended reading levels.

Going back to enterprise architecture, what is often thought of and developed in terms of architectures is not simple to understand or useful to our stakeholders. Developing architecture using the ivory-tower approach and developing reams of shelfware and wall charts that are eyesores is not a wise architecture strategy. Rather, working collaboratively with users and developing information products that they can understand and readily use to aid decision making is where it’s at.


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