“Even if we are not on the web, we are of the web” is the phrase about the revolution in human information consumption that stayed with me after hearing Mark Baker talk on October 28 at the STC NY Metro meeting. Who hasn’t reached for their smartphone to verify something they just read or heard? Information consumers are online even when they are not online.
Baker says every topic we write is an entry point to all information that we create, because how a reader gets to the content is unpredictable. Therefore, we should develop self-contained, information-rich content that serves as a portal to more information – hence, the title of Baker’s presentation and new book, Every Page is Page One.
Humans forage for information on the web much as bears hunt for berries. Bears sniff around looking to satisfy the hunger for berries. If the scent is strong, they pursue it, zero in on it and stay when they find a rich patch. If the scent is weak, they continue searching. Humans, in turn, sniff out information. When they land somewhere, they quickly assess: “Does this look good”? “Will I find more of what I am looking for”? That’s the point of EPPO. If information seekers get a good sniff, meaning the page landed on offers rich content to satisfy the information seekers' needs, they will stay and read.
Linking to relevant content is one way. Providing substantive and meaningful content is another. Depth of information is also important. A WebHelp page that has only brief paragraphs of superficial information with more white space than anything will probably not encourage a reader to forage.
In order to become part of the information landscape of the 21st century, technical communication has to shift.
- Information hierarchies
- Sequenced-based classifications
Information hierarchies, such as TOCs and carefully sequenced chunks of information, are frustrating. They suppose that readers will respect your classification. Readers are focused on their goals.
- Grouping by subject affinity
- Linking to relevant information
- Depth and breadth of information (the long tail)
Baker cited John Carroll’s research in the Nurnberg Funnel: no matter what you do, readers perform tasks in their own order. His advice on ordering tasks or chunks of information is to group information according to subject affinity and let users sort the order out – because they’ll do it regardless.
Baker talked about the long-tail phenomenon from marketing, as it could be applied to content development. It says that consumers looking for specialized goods generally also need more common goods as well. A gourmand shopping for specialized condiments probably also needs milk and bread. If you stock both, consumers visit you for everything. Information seekers looking for that arcane or specialized content probably also have need of the general content. If you provide both in your information design, you are able to provide both depth and breadth of information.
Other notes: A company’s documentation is not the first stop in a user’s information search. People tend to ask a question first and then consider authorities later. When they do consider authorities, your company is only one among many.
Baker’s advice to technical communicators is to produce topic sets, and not books. Technical communicators still focus for the large part on producing traditional, linear guides and static help systems. Baker suggests that for every topic you write, write a purpose statement. Literally write, “The purpose of this topic is …” before you write, and limit the content to the purpose statement. Stay within one level in a topic, and let the reader decide when they want to switch to more in depth information by providing links or grouping topics by subject affinity. Develop a “type”, like Wikipedia, where the reader encounters consistent presentation and structure with easy access to related information. Mark Baker’s presentation was timely as we adapt to new ways of communicating.