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Authoring and Design for the WWW
PRINCIPLES AND THEIR IMPLICATIONS
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
Many supposedly linear documents turn out to be anything
- Newspapers use headlines, subheads, captions and other devices to allow the reader to start at any of several places on the page.
- Novels use titled chunks chapters enabling the reader to locate the main points of the story for re-reading.
- Academic texts refer to other text in precise ways so that readers may pursue their enquiry with the original source. Quotation introduces a fragment of another text into the current one. Footnotes allow readers to side-step the main argument and then rejoin it.
- Non-fiction books provide a table of contents, index, named chapters and sometimes numbered sections, so enabling a whole variety of different means of access.
- Encyclopaedias and dictionaries use an arbitrary (usually alphabetic) ordering to enable individual articles to be found with ease.
- Some specialised texts, such as the Bible, use complex numbering and annotation systems to facilitate glossaries, concordances and so forth.
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
Too much information
Course information which is presented in course
handbooks (even well-designed ones) tends to be dense, unappealing and
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
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
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.
Virtual Environments Visualisation