The first question we need to address in seeking a theory of topic-based information design is the perennial “how big is a topic”. Whether we are talking about the reusable blocks that DITA calls topics, or about Every Page is Page One topics that are sized for a reader, the question of size is always the first one that people ask.
In the discussion of Keith Schengili-Roberts’ blog post, What Size Should a DITA Topic Be? (the discussion is on a closed LinkedIn community, DITA Metrics, not the blog itself), Katriel Reichman suggested “one idea, one topic”. Another approach that I have used in the past is to say that a topic supports one task.
The problem with defining topic size in terms of ideas or tasks, however, is that ideas and task are fractal. That, is an idea is made up of other ideas, a task is made up of other tasks. Fractals have the property of being self-similar at every scale, meaning that if you zoom in part of a fractal, the part has the same structure as the whole. Thus anything that is fractal in nature is not useful as a guide to scale — it looks the same no matter what the scale. What we need is some unit that is not fractal. In his blog post Misconceptions about Topic-Based Authoring, Tom Johnson talks about how documentation compiled by gluing pieces together often does not work because the result lacks a narrative flow. In the comments that followed, the role of narrative was debated: did narrative matter anymore, if readers skip and skim? This post is an expansion on the notion that came to me in contributing to that thread. What I said there was:
For whatever minim of content that reader needs in order to get back to their task, they will get to their task faster if there is good narrative flow within that minim.
I’ve been thinking since then about this idea of a narrative minim (that is, the smallest unit of narrative). I am beginning to think this is the long-sought answer to the question “how big is a topic”. The answer is, a topic is a narrative minim.
Why do I like this answer? Because a narrative is not a fractal. The chapters of a novel are not short stories. Scenes from a film are not short films. Zoom in on part of a narrative and you will not find perfect miniature narratives. What you will find depends on the genre. In technical communication, zoom in on a narrative and you will find statements.
Out of context, those statements may be meaningless. The statement “Press the Red button.” is meaningless (or, at least, useless), unless you know which red button it is and when, and for what purpose, you should push it. This is what a narrative does in technical communication: it puts statements into context, giving the reader not only the action, but the reason and context for acting.
This is why books are unsatisfactory for readers who skip and skim through content. They arrive in the middle of a narrative, and while they may find correct statements, those statements are insufficient in themselves because the do not establish the reason and context for acting. To establish reason and context, the reader has to work backwards through the text to pick up the narrative thread.
Narratives work by placing certain facts of ideas in evidence, then drawing out a conclusion from the threads of those facts and ideas. Plunge into the middle, and you have missed the submission of some of those pieces of evidence, and the argument from them makes no sense to you.
A narrative, no matter what its size, is designed to be taken whole. Its parts are not functional in themselves. Not every book is a single end-to-end narrative, and it is by no means impossible for a reader to bootstrap themselves into the middle of a narrative without having to go back to the very beginning, but attempting to extract meaning from a long narrative is certainly more taxing than extracting it from a shorter one.
This is true, of course, only insofar as the short narrative is complete enough to perform the function of a narrative in tech comm: to establish the reason and context for action. The shortest narrative that accomplishes that purpose, in any given case, is the narrative minim.
To be sure, an unsupported statement may well be sufficient for a particular reader. A reader who already possesses the reason and context for action, and lacks only one piece of information, can get by with a mere statement. They do not need the whole narrative.
They do, however, need the statement to be contextualized sufficiently that they can recognize it as the right statement. To this extent, even the reader who skips and skims through a narrative benefits from the narrative structure, for it provides the context that authenticates the one or two statements they actually read.
In an era of impatient readers, where few are willing to take the time to read a whole book before starting work, the topic provides the shortest effective piece of communication. The topic is the narrative minim: the smallest narrative that can be written and still be a narrative.
In her blog post, A Steep Price for Bad Documentation, Rahel Bailie observes:
Skimping on documentation quality is often rationalized away by claiming that users don’t read it. The reality is that while customers don’t read a document from front to back, they do refer to the document when they’re in trouble. And when they can’t find that single, critical piece of information, their perceptions and expectations change. They stop using the documentation and revert to calling the vendor’s support line – a far more costly alternative to looking up an answer – because they assume that none of the needed answers will be found in the documentation.
But unless the user is fully contextualized and is genuinely in need of only a single data point, what the user needs when they are in trouble is the narrative minim that will get them out of trouble. In many cases, even when the user does dive into the book, they can’t find the narrative minim, either because the books narrative is at too large a scale, or because it has no narrative shape at all, at any scale.
This is why we need topic-based content: because the book-scale narrative is too big for the modern impatient reader. They want quick answers — but they also want answers that work. They want the narrative minim.
How long should a topic be: for whatever subject it treats, it should be the narrative minim.
A chunk of text sized to optimize for reuse is not necessarily (and, indeed, not likely to be) the narrative minim. Can you create a narrative minim by stringing together pre-existing chunks of content?
Perhaps, but it will certainly require deliberation and care to do so. What is clear is that without that care to construct the narrative minim when reusing chunks, the result will not be an effective narrative, but a collection of statements without narrative flow between and through them. As such, they will not establish the reason and context for action. This is not to say that the reader, with a certain amount of diligence, won’t be able to figure out the reason and context for action. but is to say that it will make the reader work harder for it, and modern readers are not known for either patience or dilligence.
Our first care, therefore, must be to design and write topics that are the narrative minim.