Monday, October 30, 2006

Expanded Text vs. New Topic--
When should you use expanded text (type 2 link) versus going to a new topic (type 3 link)? (See 10/26 blog for more on types of links.) Normally, we think of expanded text as applying to lists like menus--showing subchoices-- or to term definitions--expanding the paragraph to include the definition of a term used in that paragraph.

I have seen expanded text used effectively, however, to open up larger discourse elements, such as procedures or tables. In these cases, the alternative could easily have been to link to a new topic page. Let me give an example where I think expanded text could be the more effective alternative.

Let's say you have a help topic that is about Configuring the Widget. And let's say that there are three distinct procedures that relate to configuring the widget: Procedures A. B. And C. Furthermore, let's say that you're not done configuring the widget unless you've done all three.

You could certainly have an overview page that linked to separate topics for procedures A, B, and C. And there would be NOTHING WRONG with that. But you could also show the 3 procedure titles as type 2 links, that is, links that expanded the text to display the procedural information on the same screen. Some advantages of this approach would be:
  • User stays in the same topic in the help--less chance of cyber-disorientation.
  • User can expand all three topics and read a coherent description of the uber-procedure.
  • User can print the uber-procedure as one document.
  • If an expanded link changes color as a visited link, user gets a visual aid in tracking his progress through the uber-procedure.

Some disadvantages could be:

  • Screen could get unmanageably long.
  • Accessing just a sub-procedure, for example, just procedure B, from a search or index would not be as precise.

This weighing of advantages and disadvantages in determining when to use a specific pattern is called Claims Analysis, and is an important part of applying pattern language to user assistance design. (see 10/27 blog for more about pattern language.) It avoids hard-fast rules of "do it this way" in favor of more contextual guidance for the user assistance writer, more like: "In these conditions, consider these forces."

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