Human language is extraordinarily economical. We can say an extraordinary amount in very few well chosen words. This economy is essential to its function. Language is what in computer science is called a soft real-time system. That is, you have a limited amount of time in which to convey your meaning. After that, your audience will get bored or go to sleep, or the event you wished to discuss or avoid will have taken place. The night will have come without the fire being built. The deer will have fled without the arrow being loosed from the string.
I took a side swipe at the DIKW (Data Information Knowledge Wisdom) pyramid the other day, and included a link to David Weinberger’s excellent debunking of it, which concludes:
The real problem with the DIKW pyramid is that it’s a pyramid. The image that knowledge (much less wisdom) results from applying finer-grained filters at each level, paints the wrong picture. That view is natural to the Information Age which has been all about filtering noise, reducing the flow to what is clean, clear and manageable. Knowledge is more creative, messier, harder won, and far more discontinuous.
I have wanted to write about the role of story in technical communication for a long time. It is certainly a subject that comes up again and again, but without any clear message emerging. I have long felt that yes, story is fundamental to technical communication, but I could never quite pin down how.
It is well understood that story is fundamental to human beings. We are a species who tells stories, who understands ourselves and our roles in the world in terms of stories. The marketing business has long recognized the centrality of stories to what they do, and the importance of story in creating an emotional connection to the reader. A Harley Davidson executive is supposed to have once said:
On a quite regular basis, someone publishes a study proclaiming — horror of horrors — that on the Web, people don’t always read content all the way through but skim and skip. Oh no! The Web is rotting our brains! Oh no! Writers have to change everything they do!
Bosh. Did they not bother to ask if people skipped and skimmed before the Web? Did they ever pause to consider how people read newspapers or the magazines in doctor’s waiting rooms?
Skimming and skipping is perfectly normal reader behavior. It does not indicate that there is a problem with the content or with the reader. It is not a problem to be fixed, though it may be something that writers need to do a little bit more to support.
There is a brilliant post by Gerry McGovern today entitled Moving from a world of producing to a world of connecting. We have a tendency, McGovern argues, to think of creating value in terms of creating more things, when we should be more concerned with creating connections between things. In a network, he argues, connections between things are actually more valuable than the things themselves. (How valuable would your phone be if it could not make calls or access the Web?) McGovern concludes:
We must move to a work culture that focuses as much on the maintenance and improvement of what we already have, as on the production of new stuff. But more importantly, we must develop our skills of linking and bridge building. Because in a network, that’s where the real value lies.
One of the great hopes of content management is that taxonomy will save us. Developing a consistent and rigorous taxonomy, it is hoped, will remove inconsistencies from how describe and label things, enabling us to find and reuse content much more easily. It is a lovely vision, and it is doomed to failure.
The underlying assumption of this confidence in taxonomy is that differences in terminology are accidental and that if we simply assign clear and well defined meanings to the terms we use, we can all use the same vocabulary and communicate more clearly and with less ambiguity.
Summary: As content consumers, we love hypertext. As content creators, we still believe in content management, even after years of disappointment. Content management disappoints because it does not scale for culture. It is time to embrace hypertext instead.
I should know better. Every time I put the word “hypertext” in the title of a post, my readership numbers plummet. Hopefully “content management” will help pull them up this time, because as content professionals we need to come to terms with hypertext.
One of the questions I am often asked about Every Page is Page One is whether it simply means write articles instead of books. But while articles are certainly much closer to the EPPO model than books, there is something more to EPPO than simply writing articles. EPPO is also about the relationships between articles/topics/pages (or whatever else we decide to call them).
A single article is seldom sufficient to cover a large subject. You often need to create a much larger content set, consisting of many articles/topics/pages, to cover a subject adequately and to meet your audience’s varied needs. In the age of the Web, however, in the age of Google and information foraging, a linear or hierarchical organization of content is no longer adequate, and does not match how modern readers approach content. We need another way to approach the organization of content — one I have termed bottom-up information architecture.
This is another in a series responding to questions from my TC Dojo series on Bottom-up Information Architecture.
Q: We are still frequently requested to deliver PDFs. What is the impact of this new way of writing when the deliverable also needs to be PDF?
A: One of the things we have discovered about documentation preferences is that what people ask for and what they use are often different things. So the fact that you are still being asked for PDFs does not necessarily mean people are still using them. On the other hand, they may be, if they have special needs or you are not providing a better alternative.
Does a bottom-up information architecture improve search ranking? This is another in a series responding to questions from my TC Dojo series on Bottom-up Information Architecture. I have several questions from the second session on writing, but I’m still working off the backlog of questions from the first session on organization. (Because we are moving and renovating is why.)
Q: How does Mr. Baker contend to navigate Google’s “filter bubble” and the highly competitive market for search result display order?