Subject First; Context Afterward

In communication, they say, context is everything. Actually, “everything” consists of context and subject. Useful information is subject in context. The question is, which comes first: context or subject?

In the book era, the content search pattern was: context first, subject afterwards. That is, suppose you deliver three different products and have released three different versions of the product. Assuming only a single manual per product/version that meant you had 9 manuals, each with a page on feature X. read more

Any technology you use should be “Googlable”

‘Any technology you use should be “Googlable”‘. These are the words of Bill Scott,  VP Engineering, Merchant | Retail | Online Payments at PayPal, as reported by the amazing Sarah Maddox. (I say amazing because Sarah manages to lucidly and intelligently blog just about every conference session she attends. Having just helped cover the LavaCon conference, and not achieving anything like Sarah’s level of productivity or swiftness, I can only marvel at her ability.) read more

In Praise of Short Term Thinking

I was in Portland  for LavaCon last week, and one night I had dinner with a bunch of content strategy types. As we do, we spent some of the conversation bemoaning the short term thinking that many people and organizations have about content.

One of the first sessions I attended, however, was Edwina Lui’s A Goldilocks Approach to Product Innovation: Finding the Right Team and the Right Project at the Right Size, which contained a salutary warning about the dangers of too much long-term thinking, particularly long term thinking that is aspirational rather than answering an immediate business problem. read more

Search is Not Enough: Why We Need Multimodal Navigation

Last week I wrote about the death of hierarchy as the dominant form of content organization. One of the comments on that post asked me to “comment on the different perspectives between this blog post and “Search is not enough” by the Nielsen Norman Group?”

Let me get the central question out of the way right up front. I agree. Search is not enough. In fact, there are a lot of things wrong with search.

The Nielsen Norman Group article, by Raluca Budiu, decries what she describes as the tendency of websites to minimize navigation and rely on search alone. She lists the limitation of search: read more

The Death of Hierarchy

Hierarchy as a form of content organization is dying. A major milestone — I want to say tombstone — in its demise is the shutdown of the Yahoo directory, which will occur at the end of the year according to an article in Ars Technica, Yahoo killing off Yahoo after 20 years of hierarchical organization. (Actually it seems to be offline already.)

As the article observes, a hierarchical directory made some sense when Yahoo was created:

In the early days of the Web, these categorized, human-curated Web listings were all the rage. Search engines existed, but rapidly became notorious for their poor result quality. On a Web that was substantially smaller than the one we enjoy today, directories were a useful alternative way of finding sites of interest. read more

The Interface is Technical Communication

During my recent Webinar with MadCap (recording here), I said something in response to a question that the twitterverse took to:

After Karen tweeted it, it bounced around for quite a while. Perhaps there is a little more to say about this.

Let us start with the basics: the function of an interface is to communicate to the user about how to use the tool. This is true of all interfaces, not just graphical user interfaces. Consider this slide from How to Design a Good API and Why it Matters by Google Principal Software Engineer, Joshua Bloch read more

Transclusion Will Never Catch On

Transclusion is pulling content dynamically from one page into another page. Rather than cutting and pasting text from one page to another, you create a pointer to the page you are borrowing from. That pointer is resolved at run time, pulling content from the other page when your page is loaded. Transclusion was a fundamental part of Ted Nelson’s original concept of hypertext. It has never caught on, except in specific confined circumstances. Despite continued interest, it isn’t going to catch on. read more

Reuse is a good tactic but a poor strategy

I’m hearing people talk more and more about developing a reuse strategy. This is troubling. Reuse is a tactic at best. It is not a strategy. At least, it is not a good strategy.

Content strategy has an acronym COPE: Create Once, Publish Everywhere. But COPE can mean something a little different from tech comm’s idea of content reuse. Here is Mike Teasdale’s definition of COPE from

I’m forever seeing great bits of content thrown away on a single tweet or Facebook post. read more

Reference Distance Zero: Beyond Linear Information Design

Summary: Designing information for paper was largely about managing reference distance. On the Web, the reference distance is zero. A completely different set of design requirements apply.

Linear information design

Traditional information design thinking has always been linear. This is a consequence of the medium in which the vast majority of information was presented: paper.

Whether you roll it into a scroll or chop it up into pages and bind them into a book, paper is a linear medium. This presents a fundamental information design problem: some of the things you want to talk about in the real world have complex relationships that cannot be laid out in a single straight line. read more