Every Page is Page One

By | 2011/03/15

Organizing information is no longer the responsibility of the writer.

In his book Everything is Miscellaneous, David Weinberger makes the case that, in the online world, particularly in the world vaguely characterized as Web 2.0, the power to organize information has passed from the creator to the consumer. That is, it is not the author who determines in what order the reader will receive information, it is the reader, and not merely the individual reader, but the whole company of readers, who, each acting separately and for their own ends, enrich the information sets with paths and signposts that others can follow and search engines exploit to deliver improved results.

This realization is something of an anathema to the technical writers, who regard it as their special preserve and gift to organize information for their readers. From the beginning of the craft, they have exercised their office of architect and organizer of information by designing and producing books. But in the online world, the book is something of an anachronism, and writers have realized that the Web is a world of topics, not books. They have set out therefore to organize topics for the web. They have created a new job title with a new set of responsibilities: the information architect, who is responsible for the architecture and design not of a single book, but of the entire information set of an entire product line or even an entire company. It is organization of information on a grand scale.

But if Weinberger is correct — and his observation is of the sort that makes you slap your forehead as soon as you see it, and wonder why on earth you could not see something so obvious before — then this information architect is doing a job that no reader wants or needs to have done for them. Because it is now the reader’s privilege and right to organize information for themselves, and they have the means and the moxie to ride roughshod over any writer or information architect that attempts to keep them within the prescribed structure.

And I don’t believe that we can hide from the new reality if we happen not to be delivering content directly to the web. Even if we are only delivering to a help system on the reader’s computer, we are increasingly dealing with a reader whose information seeking behavior has been conditioned by the web. The reader’s expectations have been set by Google, and those expectations do not change just because they happen to be using the search box on a local help system. As recent customer surveys showed us in my own department, readers now expect that one search box covers everything, that search results will be good, and that they will be able to navigate seamlessly across the entire information set.

What then must we do? Does this mean that we have no responsibility at all for the reader’s navigation of our information sets? I don’t think so. I think it means that our responsibility changes from that of designing and dictating the reading experience, to that of empowering the reader to organize the reading experience for themselves in the most productive way possible.

This blog is about exploring how we might go about doing that.

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