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

Optimize Your Content for Social Curation

We worry a lot about Search Engine Optimization (SEO). I suspect we don’t worry enough about Social Curation Optimization (hereby dubbed SCO). Social curation plays a large role in how people find content on the Web. Google’s Eric Schmidt was recently quoted as saying:

Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter also allow users to leverage their social networks to find answers to their questions. Google is therefore competing with all methods available to access information on the Internet, not just other general search engines. read more

Why simplicity is more important than functionality in content navigation

Findability is a filtering problem. There is a whole whack of stuff on the Web. To find what you want, you have to filter it. So if you can provide your visitors with a more sophisticated filter, such as a faceted navigation or a taxonomy-based browsing experience, they will have more success finding stuff, right?

Not necessarily, no.

Findability is a Content Problem, not a Search Problem

Findability is a constant theme in content strategy and technical communications, yet it  seems to me that people often treat findability as a problem existing outside the content. Findability is addressed using SEO tactics and by devising sophisticated top-down navigational aids, such as taxonomies and faceted navigation, but it is seldom seen as issue to be addressed in the content itself.

I believe this focus on top-down findability is wrong. Top-down finding aids have their place, but the majority of the focus should be bottom up, and it should start with the content itself. read more

Findability vs. Searchability

I argued in Too Big to Browse; Too Small to Search, that search works best when it has a large amount of content to work with. But it occurs to me that there is a really important caveat to be made, which I can best express as the difference between findability and searchability.

The distinction I want to make is not clear in the common usage of the words “find” and “search”. They are often used as synonyms, particularly in computer interfaces. But I think there is nevertheless a significant difference in the connotations, which points to a significant distinction we should pay attention to when we think about the findability of our content. read more

Too Big to Browse; Too Small to Search

Findability continues to be the bete noire of technical communication. This may be a parallax error, but it seems that findability is more of a problem in technical communication than in other fields. The reason, I suspect, is that many technical documentation suites are too big to browse but too small to search.

I have commented before on the somewhat counter-intuitive phenomenon that on the Web it is easier to find a needle in a haystack (The Best Place to Find a Needle is a Haystack). This may be counterintuitive, but it is easy enough to explain: search (if it is any more sophisticated than simple string matching) is essentially a statistical analysis function. A search engine works by discovering a statistical correlation between a search string and a set of resources in its index. read more

Topics are About User Assistance

Many discussions of the advantages or disadvantages of topic-based documentation seem to neglect the different view of the user that is inherent in the move from the traditional textbook style manual to standalone topics. Topics are not simply a new mechanism for composing and constructing documents, nor are they simply about enabling reuse, or about adapting to the web, thought the capabilities that the web offers are tremendously important to the real change that is going on.

What topics are really about is a new model of how users use documentation. Specifically, it is a move away from the educational model of documentation in which the manual was conceived of as a textbook, to a user assistance model in which the documentation is conceived of a an immediate aid to a user in the middle of a task. read more