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.
- If collapsing sections are being used simply to shorten a long narrative passage, they just force the reader to do more work to read the narrative.
- If collapsing sections are being used to make ancillary information available to users who might need it, that is what links are for. To place ancillary information inline will almost certainly mean duplicating it in several places, as it is likely to be ancillary to more than one topic.
- Worse still, if it is ancillary to more than one topic it may not get included in other places on the old paper-world argument that it is already in the manual somewhere.
- And even worse, there probably won’t be a link to it in those other places where it might be wanted, and even if there is, such a link will probably lead to the page that contains it in a hidden section, not to the ancillary information itself, making it very difficult to find.
- Worse yet again, as well as being ancillary to a number of topics, it will probably also be an important topic in its own right to some readers, who are going to have a hard time finding it when it is buried in a collapsed section of another topic.
But this is not the only symptom of the linear/hypertext hybrid. The entire concept of tri-pane help, with its expandable table of contents, is a linear/hypertext hybrid. By placing a collapsing TOC to the left of the content, we essentially invite the reader to view the content pane as simply the current expansion of one node of the document, the structure of which is modeled in the TOC pane. Again the design is superficially hypertext, while actually remaining fundamentally linear.
The basic problem with linear/hypertext hybrids is that they make for lousy hypertext systems. Despite the division into topics (or something we might call topics if we are generous in how we define that term — certainly not always Every Page is Page One topics), and some use of linking (usually very little) it is still the linear model that dominates the design. Try to use it like a hypertext system, however, and it stubbornly refuses to cooperate. This is at best linear design in a cheap knockoff of hypertext’s clothing.
Part of the ongoing attachment to the linear/hypertext hybrid may be that it makes it easy to create book-length PDFs. Creating a PDF from material organized for a linear/hypertext hybrid is trivial. The material is already in linear order and all you have to do is convert its topic hierarchy into a conventional book hierarchy of chapters, sections, and subsections. But if you must create a book-length PDF, you can do so by creating a linear collection of Every Page is Page One topics — or smaller collections more suited to an individual reader’s immediate needs.
More fundamentally, though, I suspect the continuance of the linear/hypertext hybrid is a result of a deep-seated cultural hangover. Despite living in a hypertext world, we are still very much book-normative in our attitudes to content. We use hypertext, but we still venerate the book form. We design to content to conform to past norms rather than to work for current readers.
But even though our readers themselves may have book-normative prejudices, they are more and more Web normative in their behavior all the time, and the Web is not organized like a book.
We have to start thinking, writing, and designing in hypertext terms. Make each topic self contained, treat only one subject, and link richly to ancillary material. Every Page is Page One.
For help breaking out of the book-normative forms of the last century and moving your content into the hypertext world of today, contact Analecta Communications Inc. today.