Adapting to the modern web

New York Times website

The New York Times website, recently redesigned to deliver more curated content, more dynamic content, and more paid content — all adding up to a “sleeker, faster, more intuitive” experience. (Source: nytimes.com)

Hypertext means more than just text with a bunch of links in it.

So begins Mark Baker’s timely and illuminating article on the nature of hypertext. If content on the web began as a set of articles linked to one another, it’s grown to encompass search results, social curation (for example, liking, tagging, and retweeting), and dynamically generated content.

As technical communicators, have we really grasped that? Reading through Mark’s article I’m struck by the dissonance between the way I develop content at work and the way I consume content after hours. In the first case, content tends to be tightly organized and often linear. This comes first, that comes next, and so on.

In the second case, logic and organization are out the window. I read something here, then I peruse another thing over there, and — Ooh! Shiny! — I follow an impulse and go waaaay over there. I might pull up a live hockey game or a weather forecast in which content is streamed or updated on the fly.

Mark’s article ends with a section called Adapting to a hypertext world. It looks to me like we’re adapting just fine as consumers, but not as content designers or creators. How to start adapting? Mark’s first step — understanding that “every page is page one” — is a bit too simplistic.

Even if we recognize the flattened, bottom-up, dynamic nature of the web, what then? How do we develop content that fits that model? How do we convince clients and employers that they need content that fits that model rather than traditional models?

One way is to learn, and embrace, structured authoring. Ironically, as the web becomes increasingly unstructured, we can adapt by adding structure to our content. In the early days of the web, the medium imposed structure on disparate and unrelated pieces of content. Today we have to include structure in our content so that it can form connections with other content and so that it can be delivered in more ways. Ann Rockley, one of the smartest people in our profession, insists that mobile content has to be structured, so that each piece can be processed as needed for the device on which it’s displayed.

Ann gave another piece of advice, which I offer as the second way to adapt. Figure out who’s reading your content. Then develop content for them, adapting it to their specific needs and expectations. Ann was thinking primarily about “needs” in terms of output devices — smartphones, tablets, what have you. But I think her advice applies in a broader sense as well: What backgrounds do your readers come from? What are they trying to do?

Yep. I’m talking about good old audience analysis — but with a new twist: in what fashion are they accessing your content, on what devices? Look at things from inside their world and adjust your content to fit.

What do you think? How well are we, as a profession, adapting to the modern Internet? Besides structured content and enhanced audience analysis, what techniques can we use to adapt?

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One thought on “Adapting to the modern web

  1. Mark Baker

    Larry,

    I agree wholeheartedly that the best approach to managing hypertext is structured writing. But there is a twofold problem with this:

    1. We have a cultural bias in favor of hierarchy (something I talk about in my book). This makes us associate structure with hierarchy. To structure or organize something is to put it in order, to subordinate one thing to another. If something is not in a linear or hierarchical order, we tend to describe it as “unstructured”, a tendency reflected in the words you choose to contrast your creation and consumption of content. But of course, if we want to use structure to create hypertext then we will need a different kind of structure: one that is not based on hierarchy.This is one of the reasons why I say that we have to begin by recognizing that every page is page one: because that has to be the starting point for any structure we create.

    2. Most of our existing structured writing tools and standards (such as DITA) are hierarchicaly or linearly structured. It is not impossible to create hypertext structures in DITA or Docbook, but it is not what you get by following their defaults, and you will have to do extra work and pay extra attention to make it work. Once again we need to begin by recognizing that every page is page one. (This is not to say that we have no non-linear standards. TopicMaps are one such standard, but it is not an authoring standard.)

    Thus I don’t agree that my focus on Every Page is Page One is over simplistic. It is not the whole story, but it is a vital to designing a structured that works to create real hypertext. My experience has been that attempts to create Web content are often too simplistic in their approach precisely because they fail to understand this vital point.

    Reply

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