Monday, November 27, 2006

Research, Periscopes, Cable TV, CSI, and Goldilocks--
In a tryptophan-induced semi coma this weekend, I experienced a convergence that tied my previous blog in with several seemingly disparate topics. The blog is from November 17, where I bemoan having to wade through so much meta discourse to get to actual content, e.g., "This chapter is about... This topic is about... This procedure is about..." Over the long holiday weekend, I was reading an article in the current issue of Technical Communication by some researchers in Washington state (BTW, kudos to the research leadership of Jan Spyridakis at the Un. of Washington) who studied the effects of the frequency of headings in online and print documents. The upshot of the research is that having too many headings is distracting in both print and online, but even more so for online documentation.

In my blog, I noted that the problem seemed more annoying to me when navigating a PDF through the bookmarks (which coincided with the block label headings) instead of scanning the printed manual. The research seems to validate that was not an isolated reaction. The extra navigation adds cognitive loading. But, the research also pointed out that too many headings had an aggravated negative effect in online documents even when the headings were not part of the navigation scheme, but occurred when readers scrolled through a multi-heading, monolithic block of text.

Periscopic Focus
My explanation is that reading online is like looking through a periscope; whereas reading print is like looking at the landscape from an open deck. In looking through a periscope, we seem to focus on detail more; therefore, we are more likely to interrupted by the headings (the speed-bump effect I describe in my earlier blog). The same thing happens to me when I read the program listings for my cable. The movie listing gives the cast first and then the blurb about the movie. Even though I have no interest in the cast, I find myself reading it. I think it is an effect of the periscopic focus from scrolling through the movie list.

Have you noticed on CSI that when the investigators enter the crime scene, they never turn the overhead light on? They use flashlights instead. My theory is that it helps them focus on detail and not be distracted by the broader landscape, so to speak. It forces periscopic focus.

The research reminded me and validated again that the online reader experience is less forgiving than the print experience. We need to get to the point as directly as possible.

As an avid Information Mapper, it also gave me pause to consider the potential downside to chunking at a too granular level, especially where limited screen real estate promotes aligning block labels with the body of the text (as opposed to the marginal outdenting more common in print presentation). In that presentation scheme, headings are more likely to interrupt the flow.

It also raises some interesting questions about structured writing in general where content is written independently of presentation media. Can content be authored with media-agnostic assumptions?

The good news is that the Goldilocks principle still prevails: Although too much is much too much online, just right seems to be just right in both print and online.

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