Reference Distance Zero: Beyond Linear Information Design

Summary: Designing information for paper was largely about managing reference distance. On the Web, the reference distance is zero. A completely different set of design requirements apply.

Linear information design

Traditional information design thinking has always been linear. This is a consequence of the medium in which the vast majority of information was presented: paper.

Whether you roll it into a scroll or chop it up into pages and bind them into a book, paper is a linear medium. This presents a fundamental information design problem: some of the things you want to talk about in the real world have complex relationships that cannot be laid out in a single straight line. read more

Content as Furniture

Summary: Content is no longer furniture; it is a utility. We have to learn to treat it as such.

I am in the last throes of our move from Ottawa to Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, which involves moving a lot of content. Boxes and boxes of great heavy lumps of paper and ink content. Great gaping room-swallowing wooden content storage units. Think those old hard drives in the computer museum (or your basement) were costly and low-capacity? Let me show you a book case. More to the point, help me move it. read more

Links are Not About the Relationship Between Texts

One of the most important distinctions we need to make when writing for the Web is the difference between how texts are related and how subjects are related. If that sentence made you say “Huh?”, let me explain.

In the book world, the principal reason for one book to refer to another book or article was for purposes of citation. A citation says, for support for this claim, see this work. The citation is used either to prove an assertion about another text, or to support an assertion about a subject with reference to an authoritative text. Any old text on the subject won’t do. It is the authority of the specific cited text that is being invoked. read more

The Big Step Back and the Small Step Back

My Book is currently in the technical review stage — meaning that people who I and the publisher respect have been asked to read and comment on the full draft. It is a humbling, daunting, and also energizing experience, and I am deeply grateful to the reviewers for their time, energy, and expertise.

One of the reviewers asked why the book is not itself written as a collection of EPPO topics. It’s a very fair question, and one I have attempted to address before. But I think there is more to be said on the subject, or, at least, another way of saying the same thing — which is often just as valuable. I think of it as the difference between a big step back and a small step back. read more

Structured Writing FOR the Web

Tom Johnson started the discussion with  Structured authoring versus the web. Sarah O’Keefe and Alan Pringle took it up in Structured authoring AND the Web. My turn: Structured authoring FOR the Web.

One of my long term grievances is that structured authoring has been adopted piecemeal. Rather than approaching it holistically as a method that can provide a wide range of quality and efficiency benefits to the authoring process, people have tended to adopt it for a single purpose, and to use it only to the extent that it achieved that singular purpose. read more

Web Organization is not Like Book Organization

One of the most difficult aspects of moving content to the Web is that webs are not organized like other things — books in particular. And the difference is not small. It is not that web organization is somewhat different from book organization. It is so different that you can’t even look at web organization the way you look at book organization.

And that may be the biggest problem in moving content to the Web. We are used to being able to look at the organization of our content in a particular way, from the top down, and that does not work on the Web. That makes the difference very difficult to get used to. read more

What is your primary media? Paper or the Web?

Which media is your principal design target? Most tech pubs organizations deliver to multiple media, but which one do they design for? Judging by the content I see every day, most organizations are still designing for paper even when they mostly deliver to the Web. If you are delivering primarily to the Web, shouldn’t you be designing primarily for the Web?

Tom Johnson’s latest blog post, Single Sourcing and Redundancy, ask the important question of what to deliver to each media. Do you deliver different content to paper, help, and Web, or do you deliver the same content in each media? read more

Flat Earth Tech Comm

Working with my current client has really reinforced for me how much traditional documentation methods involve flattening reality. The client is dealing with a large body of troubleshooting information, in which there are complex relationships between issues the user experiences, the symptoms that help narrow down the issue, the configurations under which symptoms can occur, and the underlying faults, misunderstandings, or frustrated expectations that cause the issues.

The relationships between these factors are complex, many to many, and multi-dimensional. Any presentation of these relationships on paper, or on a piece of glass standing in for paper, involves flattening them. This flattening is necessitated by the media, which is, literally, flat. It is also a result of the limits of our own ability to visualize and express complex multi-dimensional relationships. Whether it is a result of thought patterns developed by a five-thousand year experience with paper as the media for externalizing and preserving our thoughts, or whether the limit is innate, we flatten as we attempt to understand. read more

Desert Island Docs

There is a long-running radio program on the BBC called Desert Island Discs that asks celebrities what recordings they would take with them if they were going to be stranded on a desert island. Today, the question does not make as much practical sense as when it was first broadcast in 1942. As long as the desert island had Wi-Fi, modern castaways would not have to make their choices before they leave, they could just listen to Pandora. (If the island has power for a record player, we can presume it also has Wi-Fi.) read more

Parts and Provenance

One of the most neglected aspects of the discussion of topic-based writing is that of provenance.

Every technical document has provenance of some kind. It may be a highly structured and elaborate provenance, such as certification according to a standard performed by an outside agency, or it may be the implicit provenance of being published by a brand name company.

Because of the implied provenance (not to mention implied liability) that goes with the publication of content under their name, most companies have some more or less formal and rigorous process for proving documents before they are released. In technical communications, this usually take the form of review and/or sign-off on a document by engineering and product managements (and sometimes legal). read more