One of the biggest traps in topic-based writing it the attempt to size topics so that each one meets exactly one user information need. It is tempting to suppose that this is the point of topic-based authoring. If the book is the wrong size because people only use them to look up bits of information, rather than reading them through, isn’t the point of writing topics to make the topic contain just the information the reader needs in the moment (so that they will read it through)? Thus we envision our reader’s needs mapping to our topic sets like this:
While that is a tempting vision, it leads to an impossible quest: trying to figure out how large topics should be to fulfill this requirement. Thus the biggest question in topic-based authoring is: how long should a topic be? It is the Goldilocks problem:
But as long as we think of topic size in terms of fully meeting individual information needs, we will never answer this question satisfactorily. after all, the bear’s possessions that Goldilocks used were each sized correctly for a different bear.
Different readers want different amounts of information, and even a single reader wants different amounts of information at different times. Not only can you not perfectly size a topic for all readers, you can’t even do it consistently for one reader. No matter what you do, some readers will want only bits of some topics, and some readers will want several whole topics.
When you need information to complete a task, locating the specific set of information that you need to get you unstuck always involves some degree of difficulty. Sometimes you will find all of it within part of a large information product. Sometimes you will find it across several information products from different sources. You can’t usually tell in advance which combination of these it will take, or even how much information you are going to need to reach your current goal. Reading is a voyage of discovery, and often what you discover is that you need more information than you thought. Each piece of information you find may refine your search or lead you in new directions.
This means that the process of finding information is iterative. Yesterday I was looking up how to create a temporary file name in Python. It did not occur to me when I began this search that there are security implications to this question, or that certain techniques for creating temp files work differently on different platforms, or that there are different techniques based on whether you want the temp file to stick around beyond the process that creates it.
What I realized at this point is that I had asked the wrong question. I wanted a temporary file name, but I did not actually want a temp file in the sense Python implements that feature. I just wanted a unique name to give to a file I was creating normally. And thanks to people on StackOverflow who had asked the same wrong question in the past, I discovered that what I was really asking for was a function to generate a unique string, which was then easy to find.
Most of my reading, in this case, was not solving my problem. But it was helping me get from my somewhat incorrect translation of a business problem into a technical question to the correct technical question. What I needed as a solution was a single line of code — far less than the size of a topic. But I needed a lot of other content to get me there.
This wayfinding from slightly wrong question to correct answer is a huge part of what technical and marketing communication is really about. And every reader’s wayfinding path is different. Every reader’s path through content is formed by a unique combination of what they don’t know, what they are trying to do, and what they didn’t understand the first time they read it.
This path is not formed by reading a sequence of topics as a whole, and then selecting either a next link or an item from a series of related links. Readers hop into topics from search, glance around, sniff for an information scent, and move on as soon as they thing they have a fresh clue.
Their progress does not look like this:
It looks like this:
And the reason it looks like this is not because you got the topic size wrong, but that Papa bear looks at the world a lot differently than Goldilocks.
In fact, the reader’s true path probably looks even more complicated than that, full of false starts and abandoned paths. And this is where topic design can really make a difference. Not in creating a single perfectly sized topic that will meet all needs, but in making the reader’s wayfinding through the information set less chaotic and more straightforward.
This leads us to a somewhat counterintuitive proposition: the primary design consideration for topics is not reading, it is navigation.
The one topic/one need model (if it could be achieved) would give us an easy dichotomy between navigation and reading: Navigation would be something that happens outside the topic, and is the sole concern of information architects. Reading would be something that happens entirely inside the topic and would be the sole concern of writers.
But as we have seen, the perfectly sized topic does not exist and reading and navigation are not separate activities or separate concerns, they are inextricably integrated parts of information wayfinding. Readers do not navigate and then read. They read and navigate at the same time.
Indeed, when people use content in a bottom up fashion (whether or not it was designed that way) they spend little time on purely navigational elements. They move through content sets using search and social media, and by following clues (and hopefully links) in the pages they find in those clusters. This means that the content itself, whether read directly or abstracted in search results, is the primary place navigation happens.
Happily, this leads us to a much more satisfactory answer to the question of how large a topic should be. The keys to determining it size are not individual information needs, but shared navigational needs. A topic should be big enough — and the right shape — to be an effective navigational unit.
One of the keys to being an effective navigational unit is to have a strong and clear information scent. This means that, within the information set, the topic should be clearly distinct. If you have topics that are too small, many of them are going to seems similar to each other and it will be difficult to pick the correct one out of a batch.
If topics are too large, on the other hand, it is not going to be clear what they are about because they will end up being a about several things. Either their information scent will be dominated by the first thing they talk about, obscuring the rest of the information, or it will be a horrid mix of many scents, obscuring them all.
In either case, search results become difficult to use, because neither the too-large topic nor the too-small topic is easy to identify in a set of search results. (Nor is it easy for the search engine to determine what the topic is about.)
But correct sizing of topics is not the only factor to consider. Because navigation continues within and between topics, the internal structure of topics should be designed primarily for navigation. This means giving the topic a clear, distinct, explicit, and consistent structure.
Some writers are uncomfortable with this level of structure. Sometimes this is because the structure is imposed on them from outside and does not fit the material well. But in many cases the writer feels that the structure inhibits the natural flow of their prose, and that they, as a writer, are better able to craft a highly readable topic without the constraints of the structure.
If the readability of the topic as a whole were the primary design consideration, they might have a point. But as we have seen, navigability of the topic set should actually be the prime driver of topic design. (And note that it is navigability of the topic set, not just the individual topic that drives this, since readers frequently traverse several topics on their journey.)
Both these factors (poorly fitting structure, and the writers desire to craft an ideal reading experience at the expense of navigation) indicate the need for writers to be deeply involved in the process of designing topic types — with a full understanding that navigation is at least equal in importance to readability.
Dividing the tasks of navigation and readability between information architects and writers respectively is not going to produce an information set in which each reader can quickly and easily find the unique set of information they need at any one moment. Readers find their way by reading and navigating at the same time, and we need to create topics that are optimized for the inseparable twin tasks of reading and navigation.
This is why topic patterns are an important part of topic-based writing. Topic patterns enhance the navigability of topics and topic sets. Also, mature and well-thought-out topic patterns can effectively balance the demands of navigation and readability, producing a topic that works as well for the reader who passes through it as for the reader that reads it from top to bottom.
You cannot size topics perfectly to meet individual information needs. You can size and structure them for optimal navigation across the information set. That is how you create an information set that both Goldilocks and each of the three bears can use successfully.