Search icon Looking for something?

Key Content: Documenting in N Dimensions
2004, Q4 (February 21, 2007)
By Bill Albing

Bill Albing
Bill Albing

Serving as a judge for the STC Carolina Online Competition this past month gave me a chance to see some sophisticated forms of online presentation. And that gave me a chance to think about the complexities inherent in this kind of communication.

It is commonplace to find information through the Web, but the use of the Web for technical communication is still uncommon. What the competition entries made me realize is that in this networked world, the places where we find information are no longer one or two dimensional. Communication is no longer simply about words on a page (or on a screen). Technical information is now accessed through a multidimensional cyberspace.

Communication is no longer simply about words on a page (or on a screen). Technical information is now accessed through a multidimensional cyberspace.
As technical communicators, we are being challenged to structure information in a multiple dimensional space not done justice by site maps. We have learned to write to convey information to audiences in the linear dimension of reading. Then from our work in using layout and design, we have learned to structure text and graphics to optimize presentation in two dimensions. With the Web we can use multiple dimensions. Options for presenting content are multiplying. We can not only look for information on the Web, but we also can contribute to what we find with our own technical content. Though you might not have the time or the resources to consider all of these options, here are some ideas.

Some critical business information is best handled using email, online discussion forums, or instant messaging. But for collaborative work, forums, emails, or IMs do not provide a permanent, interactive place where information can be reviewed and edited by many individuals. Recently, Wikis have surfaced to handle the need for collaborative work. To learn more about Wikis, go to Wikipedia.org, a popular collaborative site where anyone in the world can participate. Wikis provide a technology not limited to public collaboration. They are web sites that allow specified users to access the content in an edit box within the browser. Wikis seem a great solution to allow multiple authors to work on the same piece. It's not clear if Wikis are a suitable tool for corporately owned intellectual property.

Of course another trend in Web technology is to deploy databases behind the site, serving content as needed in an automated fashion. Web sites these days seem to be automated with a database behind them with labeled and prioritized content for just about anything. It seems you cannot go to any web site that does not provide a shopping cart, whether to purchase items or to simply accrue information. I wonder if that's the future of news broadcasts or technical documentation shopping for the information you want to read and then asking for a userfriendly presentation of it when you are finished. There are a lot of open source options for content management as well as popular development environments for databased solutions. I suspect that future competitions will need a category for how well content is organized in a database or in a content management system in addition to how well the presentation of that content is designed.

Another popular tool worth investigating is the Web log, or blog for short. I am skeptical about the usefulness of blogs to present large amounts of content, but they are very popular and they seem the best way for experts to jot down ideas and allow others to comment ad hoc. Blogs are like journals. They follow a linear trail of development over time with entries by the author on each day or each week. They may be a component of a successful communication system when used with other Web technologies.

Another important area for technical communicators to understand is how search engines are used on Web sites. What kind of data could we collect about the scope of searches? When searches are performed on a particular site is every word on the site evaluated, or are only key indexed words considered? There are so many options to navigate a site: there may be navigation bars or tabs or all sorts of menus, there may be links or image maps or pop-ups or roll-overs. In fact, a Web site simply be a portal with links to other sites or more detailed information in multiple and different places. These days, newsletters commonly have brief summaries with links to more detailed information on the same or associated Web sites. You may receive a newsletter as an email message or find the newsletter as a main page of a Web site.

Some use the word architecture to describe the design of a virtual space for information. As information architects, we create and design communication. Architecture is only an analogy and will only get us so far. In addition to the spatial dimensions of the Web, we need to consider the dimension of time as we develop technical information, especially when technological generations are shortening. Previously time-to-market was measured in years, but now time-to-customer is measured in minutes. Getting critical business information to a decision maker immediately is as important as getting it there accurately and concisely.

Whether you are sharing information on the Web for the general public or sharing information on an intranet (or enterprise portal) for use inside a corporation, Web technology has become an integral part of the infrastructure for distributing information. Web is the quickest and cheapest way to distribute technical information to a wide audience, the exact mechanism for delivering means you must consider a multitude of options. Do not be afraid to learn about these new technologies or to use them in upcoming projects. If you have more ideas about these, be sure to share them with the rest of us.

Bill Albing is a past president of STC Carolina. He can be reached at bill dot albing at keycontent dot org. End of article.

More articles like this...
Comments powered by Disqus.