Getting Past the Linear/Hypertext Hybrid

A lot of the information design being done in technical communications today is what I think we can fairly call a linear/hypertext hybrid. Perhaps this is a necessary stage in our evolution from static linear paper manuals to dynamic hypertext information sets, but if so we have lingered in it far too long, and we are still producing and using tools and systems that are designed for the linear/hypertext hybrid rather than for true hypertext.

This thought occurred to me when reading Tom Johnson’s post on collapsing sections. As I commented there, collapsing sections are a symptom of the linear/hypertext hybrid. They are hypertext in the sense that you have to click a link to open the section, but still linear in the sense that they are written and organized as part of a single consecutive narrative. As such they have some pretty significant problems, as I noted in my comment on Tom’s post. read more

Video Will Not Eclipse Text

There is a fallacy that seems to have worked its way into the shared psyche, a belief that the next generation (whichever one that might be) will not read text at all but will demand video for everything. This seems to have produced a kind of fatalism in some tech writers, a belief that video will conquer all despite its obvious unsuitability for many technical communication tasks.

Here is one expression of this, from a recent discussion on LinkedIn:

I agree that videos can be frustrating, particularly when you know most of the information and you only need help on a small area of a product. But customers like them and the upcoming generation will require them. read more

The Goal of Tech Comm is to Enable Correct Action

The purpose of technical communication is not to translate complex information into simple terms, but to enable the reader to act correctly.

Tom Johnson has a great blog post laying out An argument for complexity rather than simplicity in technical communication. Many products, Tom argues, are complex, and to pretend otherwise is to do the reader a disservice. I have great sympathy with this argument, complaining, as I often do, about documentation that explains everything you could figure out for yourself, but nothing else.

Tom begins by quoting the revised STC mission statement, which defines technical communication as “the discipline of transforming complex information into usable content for products, processes, and services” Tom praises the STC for choosing to use the word usable rather than the word simple. read more

Some Upcoming Events

Here are three events where I will be speaking in the next few months.

Every Page is Page One: STC Southwestern Ontario, February 13, 7:00

I will be presenting on Every Page is Page One to the Southwestern Ontario Chapter of the STC on February 13 in Room DC1304, William Davis Centre, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON. The session will also be broadcast as a Webinar, so you can attend from anywhere.  Details here. Here’s the session description:

Readers dive into the middle of your content using search, links, or indexes, but often find themselves lost in the middle of a long consecutive narrative. Even when the content is produced using common topic-based writing techniques, it is often organized like a book, and individual topics do not work well as a starting point for the reader. On the Web, in particular, readers can come from anywhere and land anywhere. Is your content ready to receive them? read more

Links are Not About the Relationship Between Texts

One of the most important distinctions we need to make when writing for the Web is the difference between how texts are related and how subjects are related. If that sentence made you say “Huh?”, let me explain.

In the book world, the principal reason for one book to refer to another book or article was for purposes of citation. A citation says, for support for this claim, see this work. The citation is used either to prove an assertion about another text, or to support an assertion about a subject with reference to an authoritative text. Any old text on the subject won’t do. It is the authority of the specific cited text that is being invoked. read more