Everyone agrees that we should be writing in topics. (Okay, not everyone, probably, but everyone who is likely to read this blog.) Everyone agrees we should write in topics. But no one agrees on what a topic is.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. When asked to describe what a topic is, almost everyone in the business will come up with the same essential adjective: standalone. Everyone agree that a topic is a standalone piece of content. Unfortunately, no one agrees on what “standalone” means.
Andrew Brook has an interesting recent blog post on the subject, in which he compares topics to electrons:
1. A topic is to a document what a subatomic particle (such as an electron) is to matter. It is the basic component in a document. Each topic can and must stand alone.
But it strikes me as odd to say in one breath that a topic is a basic component of a document, and in the next that it must stand alone. What do we mean by “stand alone” here?
A brake caliper is a basic component of a car. But does the brake caliper stand alone? Certainly it can stand alone on the shelf at the auto parts store, but it serves no function until it is attached to the car. In this sense, it does not stand alone — it can only perform its function when integrated into a larger system.
This does indeed seem to be what Brook has in mind, because he goes on:
2. Combinations of topics are like atoms. They form a section of a document containing a group of related topics. This corresponds to a book within an online help TOC, or a chapter within a book.
3. Groups of sections are like groups of atoms, or molecules, for example, a water molecule. These correspond to an entire document.
4. Groups of documents form a library, which is like the various molecules combined together to form the complex matter, or compounds, that we encounter every day, everything from plastic to clothes to hamburgers.
So, a topic is a component of a book in the same way that a carbon atom is part of a hamburger, or a brake caliper is part of a car. In this sense, to say that it stands alone seems to mean at most that it can exists separately and be identified separately. What it cannot do, in this definition, is function separately. You cannot lunch on a carbon atom or go for a ride on a brake caliper. They do not stand alone functionally.
In another recent blog post, Scott Nesbitt praises Google’s approach to the documentation for Chrome:
One of the first things that I noticed was the way in which the documentation was described. Help articles. Yes, articles and not documentation or user manual or online help. That’s a very subtle (or maybe not) distinction. But it’s a distinction that can be psychologically powerful.
This points at a very different way of looking at what it means for a topic to stand alone. If the help is a set of articles, an article is something that can be read on its own. It is not part of a larger manual. It stands alone. That is, it stands alone not merely by existing separately, but by functioning separately.
Nesbitt goes on:
Ask most people how they learn to use software or hardware, and I can bet that a majority say that they don’t use the so-called official documentation. Most turn to search engines or sites like Lifehacker, eHow, or Make Tech Easier.
By labeling the documentation as a set of articles, Google is (whether consciously or not) positioning the documentation for its products like articles that appear on the sites that I listed in the previous paragraph.
And, of course, all those sites, like most of the helpful material on the Net, consists of articles, blog posts, forum posts, etc., none of which form any part of a larger document, all of which stand alone, all of which function independently. They are wholes, not pieces.
My answer to what “stand alone” means should be clear enough. It is the title of this blog: Every Page is Page One. What stand alone means to me is that every topic functions as page one for the reader. For every page to be page one, every topic must stand alone in the fuller sense of those words: it must function alone.
So why not drop the term “topic” altogether for this purpose and simply use the word “article”? Well, article-based authoring does not really trip off the tongue like topic-based authoring. Nor does it entirely capture the idea we are looking for.
I find articles to be good examples of Every Page is Page One writing, but the term “article” may suggest too great a sense of independence. Articles tend to be written entirely individually. They are usually not designed to be part of a specific collection of information. An information set consisting of Every Page is Page One topics should have more cohesion than the miscellaneous collection of articles on eHow.
Here is where we have to impose some limit on what it means to stand alone. To say that an article stands alone is to say that it is not designed to work as part of some larger information product. But neither is an article expected to work in a complete information vacuum. Indeed, many of the articles you find online are useful precisely because you can highlight a term or concept you don’t understand and select “Search Google for…” to find more information. The article stands alone not because it is entirely self-sufficient, but because it exists in a rich information environment that the user can call on to further their understanding. It stands alone not because it depends on nothing, but because it depends on everything.
Rich as it is, the information environment of the Internet can be a frustrating place, full of distractions, interruptions, and false leads. As Nesbitt points out, Googling the Net can be better than trying to find information in a monolithic textbook style manual, but it has its own set of drawbacks. A deliberately constructed Every Page is Page One information set can potentially offer the advantage of the Internet’s rich environment and unfettered navigation with fewer of its distractions. It can provide more wheat and fewer tares per acre.
This this is what stand alone means to me. It means that each topic in a well governed information set works as page one for the reader. No matter how they enter the information set, and no matter how they move around in it, no topic makes any assumptions about where they have come from, and enforces no prescription about where they should go next. But, just an an article does not attempt to be self sufficient, but relies on the whole Internet, so an Every Page is Page One topic does not attempt to be entirely self sufficient, but relies on the whole information set.
Such a topic stands alone because rather than relying on particular individual topics, and being functional only in specific relationship to those topics, it relies on all the other topics, allowing the reader to move readily to whatever other topic they need to further their understanding or complete their task.
What does such a topic look like? I think there are some basic characteristics for an Every Page is Page One topic. I’ll look at them in future posts.