Search is Not Enough: Why We Need Multimodal Navigation

Last week I wrote about the death of hierarchy as the dominant form of content organization. One of the comments on that post asked me to “comment on the different perspectives between this blog post and “Search is not enough” by the Nielsen Norman Group?”

Let me get the central question out of the way right up front. I agree. Search is not enough. In fact, there are a lot of things wrong with search.

The Nielsen Norman Group article, by Raluca Budiu, decries what she describes as the tendency of websites to minimize navigation and rely on search alone. She lists the limitation of search: read more

The Death of Hierarchy

Hierarchy as a form of content organization is dying. A major milestone — I want to say tombstone — in its demise is the shutdown of the Yahoo directory, which will occur at the end of the year according to an article in Ars Technica, Yahoo killing off Yahoo after 20 years of hierarchical organization. (Actually it seems to be offline already.)

As the article observes, a hierarchical directory made some sense when Yahoo was created:

In the early days of the Web, these categorized, human-curated Web listings were all the rage. Search engines existed, but rapidly became notorious for their poor result quality. On a Web that was substantially smaller than the one we enjoy today, directories were a useful alternative way of finding sites of interest. read more

There are no Prerequisites

There are few worse ideas in technical communication than the idea that procedures have prerequisites. There are no prerequisites. There are only steps.

To illustrate: Last weekend I paid a visit to some family members who were camping at a nearby campground. They were struggling to inflate the new air mattress they had bought. The mattress had an integrated foot pump, but no matter how they pumped, the mattress refused to fill with air.

Several of us took our turns trying. Each of us read the instructions and did what they said to do, all to no effect. The decision was eventually made to return the mattress to the store, and discussion turned to whether to go home or sleep on the ground. read more

The Reader’s Path Cannot be Made Straight

The straight path. It is an idea with immense psychological appeal to us. Every valley, Isaiah promises, shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill laid low (Isaiah 40:4). As communicators, we naturally want to lay out a straight path for our readers. But the truth is, we lack the power to make the crooked straight and the rough places plain.

The crooked path and the paradox of sensemaking

A crooked path through a forest.

The reader walks a crooked path through a forest of information.
Simon Carey [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

In his landmark book, The Nurnberg Funnel, John Carroll described what he called the paradox of sensemaking, which can be roughly summed up as saying that learners cannot make sense of the learning materials because they don’t correspond to their current mental model, which can only really be changed by experience. No documentation can ever work perfectly, therefore, because it can only make perfect sense to someone who already understands what it is saying. read more

Design for Wayfinding

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. read more

Passive vs. imperative linking

Summary: Writers worry about whether links will distract users. To discuss this concern, we need to begin by distinguishing between imperative links that command the reader to click and passive links that merely make finding ancillary material easier.

Tom Johnson wrote a post recently in which he raised an important question about linking, and referred to an earlier article of mine on the subject. When you refer to another document in a post or article, should you link to it immediately? Tom wrote: read more

Why Your Content Needs More Links

Technical Communications needs to make far greater use of linking than it does today. Here’s why.

In a blog post WordPress for Beginners: Too Many Choices? Sufyan bin Uzayr quotes an email from novelist Meg Justus about her frustrations trying to get started with WordPress:

The reason I’m finding self-hosted WordPress so complicated is that it asks me to find a theme first, before I even know what I’m looking for. All the “how to choose a theme” websites I find assume I know far more about what I want out of a theme than I do. Most of the language used to describe themes isn’t language I understand (WordPress’s own “search for a theme” is horrible in this respect – how am I supposed to limit down by function if I don’t understand what the words describing those functions mean?) read more

On the Web, Context is Vital

Supply subject area context; avoid institutional context.

In a recent blog post, On the Web, context kills, speed saves, Gerry McGovern states:

A key difference between web writing and writing for print is that on the Web you need to avoid context and instead focus on instructional, how-to, task-based content.

Since one of my seven principles of Every Page is Page One is that an EPPO topic establishes its context, this quote made me think that either Gerry McGovern had gone bonkers or he was using the word context in a very different way than I use it. Turns out that it is the latter. (Sorry if you were hoping for fight here.) I actually agree with almost everything that McGovern says (I’ll get to the part I don’t agree with a little later). In fact, I have said many of the same things before, but in a different way. read more