Much of the time we spend with technical documentation is concerned with wayfinding. That is, it is not about performing the actual operation, but about finding which operation to perform, and finding the piece of content that describes the operation in a form that we can understand.
Note that there are two distinct components to this description of wayfinding. It is tempting to think of wayfinding purely in terms of finding the right piece of content. But simple content wayfinding really applies only in cases where the user it thumbing through a well known and well used reference work. That is, in cases where we know exactly what we are looking for, and merely have to locate an individual data point.
At all other times, the principal wayfinding that the reader is doing is finding their way through the subject matter from the starting point of the business problem they are trying to solve to the actual technical implementation of the most appropriate solution.
That journey may involve several pieces of content, and several wayfinding steps. In these cases, the reader will go back and forth between subject wayfinding and content wayfinding several times on this journey — each new content wayfinding step being required to complete the next subject wayfinding step.And this journey may not be straightforward or direct. In many cases, the reader will not fully think through the business problem before they set out to solve it, so their journey will often involve not merely the journey from problem to solution, but also the journey to the proper conception of the problem.
Their path will be further complicated by their own preconceptions. Most of us don’t start our information search from a pure problem statement. Rather, we start from an often half-baked idea of a solution. The reader’s journey that results is often from a half-baked idea of a solution to an incompletely conceptualized problem, through a process of problem refinement, solution reformulation, and eventually content location.
All of this is wayfinding.
And yet, we often design our content as if wayfinding was an entirely separate problem existing outside of the content. Thus we regard finding the right content as a problem entirely to be solved using tables of contents, indexes, taxonomies, and search engines. We design and write the content as if it could be assumed that the reader is reading the right content — the content they really need — and that if they are not, the fault lies elsewhere, with the reader themselves or with the set of finding aids that exist outside the content.
This idea leads us to other problems. For instance, it leads us to test content and navigation separately. In particularly, it often leads us to test content based solely on the reader’s comprehension of the individual piece based on testing how well the reader comprehends the text as a text.
I have pointed out before that comprehension of the text is not the point of technical communication. Correct action is the point, and correct action can often be achieved without full comprehension of the text. The text often contains information not necessary for action, and the affordances of the product itself often supply much of what the reader needs). Conversely, correct action is not always attained even with full comprehension of the text as a text. (This is extremely common in recent graduates, who can pass tests on content, but cannot perform in the real world.)
But this approach to testing content also ignores the role it plays in wayfinding. If a reader looks at more than one piece of content in their journey, all the content they look at prior the the final piece is likely playing a wayfinding role. Even the last piece may be playing a wayfinding role, if the affordances of the product provide the actual technical know how required — which is often the case. The true test of the content, therefore, is not how it performs as a stand-alone object of comprehension, but how it performs as an effective wayfinding tool for both kinds of wayfinding: subject wayfinding and content wayfinding.
In the ongoing debate about how much linking to provide in content, the arguments for eliminating or limiting links often ignore the wayfinding function of content. Often they are based on stand-alone comprehension tests, which test comprehension of the text or time to read the text, and find small increases in comprehension and reading speed when links are removed. (It is hardly surprising that isolating content from the rest of the world helps when you test how it performs in isolation.)
These would be reasonable arguments against linking if the goal of technical communication were to ensure that readers could read individual texts at maximum speed and then correctly answer questions about the texts. But simple comprehension of texts is a goal we set for school children. It is not the goal of working adults.
The goal for a working adult is to find their way to a correct understanding of their business problem and the correct execution of an optimal solution to it. This almost always involves wayfinding through a body of content and the subject matter it describes.If links assist that wayfinding, they do far more to reduce the time of the overall task than any slight slow down they may produce in reading individual texts.
But it is hardly enough to throw in a bunch of links and hope good wayfinding results. To provide for great wayfinding, you need a systematic approach to linking that is optimized for wayfinding. I noted at the beginning that there are two kinds of wayfinding going on in a tech comm journey: subject wayfinding and content wayfinding. Content wayfinding is the servant of subject wayfinding. No reader is looking for a piece of content for its own sake (that is a purely academic pursuit), they are looking for content that describes a subject on their current subject wayfinding path. Links should follow the lines of subject affinity between pieces of content so that readers can navigate to the content on the subject they need to understand at any given point in their journey.
This requires a highly systematic approach to linking that ensures that the important subject affinities are linked consistently and in the right way. This should ideally be driven by metadata, and by subject taxonomies, where taxonomies are available and maintained.
But you need much more that just linking. The content as a whole should be designed for wayfinding. To being with, links cannot follow the lines of subject affinity between topics if related topics are not appropriately referred to in individual topics, which is often the case when content is designed and written to be read and navigated hierarchically or linearly.
This gets to the heart of what Every Page is Page One is about. Some people misinterpret Every Page is Page One as meaning that the reader is only ever supposed to read one page. Though that might be ideal, in an almost perfect world, that is not what EPPO means. Rather EPPO means that every reader’s wayfinding is different, so that it is not possible for the author to create one perfect sequence that works for every reader. Readers may look at several pieces of content as they find their way through a subject. But because we cannot know where they will start or what order the will read in, we have to write every page as if it were page one. (In a truly perfect world, people would not need any content at all. In the real world, they need to find their way through a lot of it.)
Supporting the merely mechanical actions of machine manipulation for a reader whose wayfinding has been successfully completed is a relatively straightforward task . (There are definitely good ways to do it, and bad ways, but the problem is not terribly complex or beset by many uncertainties.) The hard part of effective tech comm is the wayfinding. All of the seven principles of Every Page is Page One are designed to improve wayfinding.
- Being self contained helps the reader by making sure that the information they need on a single topic is kept together. This avoids trivial and time wasting navigation to follow the thread of a single subject.
- Having a specific and limited purpose makes sure that the reader’s wayfinding is not interrupted by trivialities and unnecessary and inappropriate diversions.
- Conforming to a type helps make wayfinding easier by presenting information in a consistent and navigable format, and by ensuring the information is complete and presented in a usable form.
- Establishing context helps the reader know exactly where they are as they try to navigate the content set, and ensures that the principal subject affinities of the topic are clearly presented so that the reader can follow them if they wish.
- Staying on one level allows the reader to choose when they want to study the high-level view or delve down into the weeds.
- Assuming the reader is qualified helps the qualified reader to find what they are looking for without having to wade through material they don’t need.
- Linking richly allows the unqualified reader to get to content more suitable to their needs, and the wayfinding reader to move through the content as their pursuit of the understanding of their subject moves them.
Readers spend more time wayfinding than executing end procedures. We need to design content to support wayfinding. Every Page is Page One is and excellent approach to creating content that supports robust wayfinding.