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Authoring and Design for the WWW


The uses of hypertext

Hypertext is fundamental to HTML and the Web.

There are two key components to the way in the Web handles information. One is the idea of virtual documents which are not bound by the same physical laws as paper documents. The other is the idea of interlinking document parts.

Bush's argument for hypertext

The idea behind hypertext was first mooted in 1945 by Vannevar Bush, scientific adviser to Roosevelt, and the term itself was coined by Ted Nelson in the 1960s, but it was not until the late 1980s that two programs brought hypertext to a wider public. They were Guide (for Macintosh, Windows and other platforms) and HyperCard (for Macintosh only).

It may be useful to quote briefly from Bush's article in Atlantic Monthly in 1945. The URL for the full text may be found in Web Resources (p110).

Our ineptitude in getting at [information] is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage they are filed alphabetically or numerically.

[Information] can be only in one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome.

The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts.

The heart of the Memex' which Bush proposed was a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another.' The user would be able to build links between items, and follow links made by others.

The value of hypertext as an organisational approach will vary greatly from one type of information to another. A battle rages in some circles over the merits or otherwise of hypertext novels, for example. However, since hypertext is a feature of documents on the World Wide Web, it is important to understand the implications.

Advantages of interactive publication

The introduction of interactivity, which makes hypertext possible, adds five important characteristics: information filtering; interconnection; transparent connections; dynamic behaviour; and the possibilities of mixed media.

Hypertext is not synonymous with multimedia. It is quite possible for interactive electronic text to be just that text. Even without graphics, animation, filmic images etc. interactive text may have advantages.

Information filtering

With paper documentation, it is impossible to tailor documents to the requirements of the individual, or the needs of the moment. However, using interactive electronic texts, in principle only that part of a document need be presented which a particular user requires at a particular time. For example, the user may seek only information about module dates, wishing to ignore information about curriculum content, teaching and learning styles, credits allocated and so forth. A commonly ignored benefit of computers is their ability to hide information, and a well-structured interactive document should make it easy to suppress all but what the user wants to know.

However, this advantage will only arise if the document is well designed. Here design' means above all the editorial structuring of the information - information design- rather than the imposition of a particular appearance. Of course the visual design must also articulate that structure.


The electronic techniques of hypertext make it easy to interconnect one item of text with another. The user interacts with one piece of text (for example by clicking the pointer) in order to reveal another. This principle can also be extended to other media such as pictures, diagrams, maps, moving images and sound.

Combined with the ability already described to present only the information the user requires, this facility for displaying relevant connected texts can provide a very congenial style of information. Only seeing what they wish, users can gain access to related information on demand.

Links allow the same document to be read in different contexts, so that for example a resum‚ of a member of staff might be instantly accessible from every place where that person is named, with negligible additional labour or storage requirements.

Links allow complex informational structures to be built up, centred on the user's needs. This is a two-edged sword, since it is easy for the novice to create a cat's cradle of interlinked items which are incomprehensible to the reader (this is sufficiently well recognised to have earned itself a name: the lost in hyperspace' problem). At best, however, structures can be devised which are better at answering the reader's needs than the rather limited range of structures available using paper. In addition, the document can change, acquiring (or losing) links and content over a period of years.

Transparent connections

A less important, but still significant, aspect of interactive electronic texts is that it should make no difference to the user where the various interconnected texts are physically located. The user need not know whether the texts to which s/he jumps are in the same file as that which is currently open, in another file on the same storage device or on the other side of the world.

Web documents are part of an interconnected information system handling several kinds of communication. There are obvious attractions in the idea of users being able to jump seamlessly between any of the following (for example)

When such schemes are considered, issues of coordination, consistency and control inevitably arise. We believe these do not differ very greatly from those of editorial and design policy for paper documents: similar approaches, promulgated as a part of staff-awareness initiatives could be used to deal with problems before they occur.

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