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:
One of the most enduring and most maligned topic patterns in tech comm and on the Web is the FAQ. Writers and Information Architects frequently regard the FAQ as a sign of poor organization. For best and most consistent access, they argue, information should be in its proper place in the overall site or help system.
If the logic of top-down content organization worked, they would have a point. But the logic of top-down content organization generally only works for those who do the organizing, and then not always, as we can tell from the many sites, manuals, and help systems where any sense of organization peters out as soon as you get any depth into the content.
I am very grateful to Jonatan Lundin for a lengthy conversation on the subject of topic patterns because it helped me to crystalize something important about the basis for the principles of EPPO information design and how they are derived.
Approaches based on psychology
Traditionally, theories of information design have been psychologically based. Researchers (usually academics) attempted to form a psychological theory about how we learn and then suggested information design approaches based on those theories. The success of such efforts has been mixed.
One of the principles of Every Page is Page One information design is that an EPPO topic conforms to a type. But I have come to think that that formulation is not quite right. It should really be, an Every Page is Page One topic conforms to a topic pattern.
The difference between type and pattern
What is the difference between a topic type and a topic pattern? In structured writing terms, a topic type, or, more generally, a document type, is a formal set of rules about the structure of a topic which is capable of being expressed by a schema. In most cases, that means an XML schema or something similar. This usage is consistent with the use of the word “type” in other computing applications. A type is a data definition.