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Authoring and Design for the WWW


Paper information: good and bad

A note on linear' paper documents

It is sometimes suggested that paper documents are linear, that their physical form allows only a beginning-middle-end style of reading. This is patently untrue: most paper documents are not read in this way.

Within 50 years of the invention of printing, page numbering had been adopted, enabling any part of a printed text to be identified with a reasonable degree of accuracy using title, author, edition and page number.

Many supposedly linear documents turn out to be anything but:

Seen in this light, the approach taken by the Web seems evolutionary rather than revolutionary. It is worth noting that many of the conventions of paper documents are quite complex, and only seem natural and obvious because we are used to them.

Overcoming limitations of paper documents

A number of problems arise specifically with the documents which we produce now, for example to inform students about a course or school, which may be solved using electronic techniques.

Timing of publication and access

Course handbooks and set guides are provided at induction or mailed to students beforehand. This is almost certainly a bad time to impart this information. Even the slimmest document will tend to repel readers who do not yet know what they need to know.

Some course and school information is presented verbally during induction and is effectively lost' by the time students discover their need for it. Typically some of this will be important survival kit' information which somehow gets filtered out of official documents.

A paper document handed out at the beginning of a course is usually filed' by students for later use, and never referred to again. With a caveat concerning access to equipment, we can say that electronic documents are always present, to be referred to repeatedly as the need arises. This will be especially true of information stored on servers rather on some form of disc which can be mislaid.

Too little information

There is a tension between the need to present a comprehensive reference source and the desire to make a readable document. There is a great deal of information which students might one day need, but whose inclusion would lead to an unreadably large document.

The ability of the computer to hide information is of great use in this kind of situation. In electronic media a summary document can expand at the reader's request to give more detail detail which is otherwise kept from view.

Too much information

Course information which is presented in course handbooks (even well-designed ones) tends to be dense, unappealing and remains unread.

Perhaps our attempts to rethink documentation in the light of electronic techniques can assist us in seeing what is wrong with our paper documentation. For example, in electronic documents it is very common to offer FAQs frequently asked questions which act as a guided index to the information. Such a facility is rare in paper documents; indeed many set guides and programme documents do not even have a contents list or index (surely reprehensible when we are trying to encourage skills of research in our students!). FAQs represent a user-centred view of information which is often lacking in HE.

Wrong media for its presentation

The question of which media words, numbers, graphics, sound, animation and filmic imagery are most effective (and in what combination) is contentious, and most of the bold statements made about it are questionable. However, we can make broad judgements with a certain amount of confidence.

Large quantities of undifferentiated text are unappealing. The answer may simply be to break text into small meaningful blocks, to tabulate text where appropriate, and to use clear diagrams. Nevertheless, textual handbooks comprise poor media for giving students certain kinds of information. For example it is difficult enough to convey adequately what members of staff look like using simple photocopied documents, let alone to give new students other qualitative' information about staff their research interests or opinions on the central issues of the curriculum. There is a lack of warmth in text on paper which makes it difficult to convey some kinds of ideas ideas which for example might better be evoked by short video sequences of staff introducing themselves individually. Such an approach might eventually be so taken for granted that it is less trouble and less work than it would be to formalise the ideas on paper, and produces results more accessible for the end- user. Certainly, with current pressures on HE, we would not suggest any innovation which would be likely to create additional work.


It frequently arises that documents make reference to other documents, which are often not to hand. We described some of the advantages of hypertext in allowing the user to not only see a reference to another document, but also to have immediate access to that document itself. HEIs have many documents which are separately bound and often physically remote from one another.


If something is unclear in a paper document, it tends to remain unclear. By contrast, documents which are responsive to the user, for example using such simple techniques as highlighting, may be better able to answer users' needs.


Paper course guides are revised once a year, at best. They cannot economically be updated more frequently. They cannot contain information which is only temporarily useful. A well-managed electronic documentation system solves these problems.
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