Friday, June 26, 2009

Online vs. on-line

No this isn't a discussion of hyphenated vs. not hyphenated. It examines the difference between putting a PDF file on the Internet (what I call an on-line document) and having a truly electronic Web presence for that content (what I call an online document). Unfortunately, the two often get bundled together.

I have a UXmatters column called PDF Manuals: The Wrong Paradigm for an Online Experience that highlights my arguments for not putting user manuals on line as PDF files. It deals with the artificial constraints such as page breaks that make no sense in the context of an online experience.

In my blog today, however, I want to focus on other kinds of publications, namely journals and magazines, and the impact of taking them...what? online or on-line.

But first, let's play a mind game. Anybody still remember encyclopedias? What if encyclopedias were bound, NOT alphabetically by topic but by when the articles were written. Is that a better organizational scheme? Not at all! But in essence, isn't that what a collection of journal issues is? With the exception of a few theme issues, the only thing the articles in a volume have in common is their publication date. So if I want to read about Usability, I have to grab a handful of these issues to get to all the articles. Can you imagine trying to read about the Civil War in an encyclopedia and first having to find the volumes that applied--based on when the sections were written?

Because of how journals and magazines were published, this was an artifact of the technology and the processes imposed. It was never a good way to organize content.

OK, so as we go online with the content that has traditionally been in journals or magazines, why would we keep this organizational structure?

Let's take a model I am very familiar with and have a lot of emotional attachment to: Technical Communication and Intercom, the two STC publications. I personally love having them in print for two reasons:
  • I like publishing in them and being able to display them on my coffee table--I realized that about myself when I published in the UPA Journal, an on-line journal, and noticed the lack of the "hunter's thrill" in not being able to display my trophy.
  • Just having the physical presence of them arriving makes me feel smarter, or at least feel I'm about to get smarter--if I read this issue, and I will, let me just put it here with some other stuff I haven't quite gotten around to reading yet, hmmmm, this one is March 2002, my my time has certainly been flying.
But if I quit thinking about publications for a moment and think instead of knowledge and some realistic contexts of when that knowledge could be useful, journals and magazines just don't seem to be the answer, or their capabilities pale in comparison to what current technologies can do.

OK, let's do the Conan O'Brien thing where we put a flashlight under our chin and someone chants in falsetto "In the year 2000" (Yeah yeah it's well past 2000 but Conan knows a good tag line when he finds one) and see what it would mean to have a truly online (no hyphen) journal and magazine.

I have a question about Usability, maybe a big question like "what is it" or a tiny question like "how do I do a card sort?" I go to the STC Body of Knowledge Portal and enter usability. I'm taken to a web page that has a general overview of what usability is and its place within the practice of Technical Communication. Now I see that I can link to rigorous research articles, practitioner articles, vendor websites, and other websites that deal with usability. I decide to read an article that says it's been peer reviewed and meets the rigor of scholarly research--let's say the abstract associated with the link made me believe it would be of interest to me. I open the article and get a little overwhelmed by some of the research methodology, as in, "Yikes what is an ANOVA?" Wait, a link in the sidebar "Tell me about ANOVA." I take it and get a quick layman's description of what it is and what I should look for as a critical reader. I read the article and it seems to make a lot of sense to me. Wait, here's a comment from a reader that says the literature review missed some important contributions and provides them. Hey! Speaking of literature review, about half of the references at the end of the article have links to the references themselves. And of course, the technique of "Readers who read this article also recommend..." Wow, here's a link to an STC content focus group on usability. Let me check into that as well.

Suddenly, I'm missing my journal and my magazine less. I know as an author, I will not be able to put my contribution on the coffee table and I would be lying through my teeth to say I will not miss that. But publishing should never be about pleasing the author, it should be about serving the reader.

I know as a reader, I must give up the vicarious joy in that others are smart and I will be too as soon as I get time. But now I can get smarter on a just-in-time and as-needed basis because I know where to go when I need to be smarter about a topic in my field.

O brave new world that has such documents in it!

Related posts:
State of the Ark
How Not to Update your Look and Feel


Paul K. Sholar said...

Your critique of online PDFs is also a critique of printed books in general. (I bristled when you wrote in the UX column that there's no useful content in a document's front matter!) Notice that the latter have stood the test of time very well. Your UX column also assumes that delivery of large bodies of technical content is inherently more desirable online, but you're assuming several things that you don't acknowledge. (1) Large documents and document sets work well online; this is not all a well-established fact. Help us with some references to research. (2) The documents are embedded in the product: but lots of product can't have embeddedable documents such as software w/ no UI such as API libraries or some industrial control software. My cell phone doesn't even contain all its own documentation. (3) Some computer products aren't portable, whether practically or for security reasons, so embedding documents in them might prevent remote learning about the product. OTOH, printed documents can be read when away from the computer, such as when traveling.

Michael Hughes said...

I didn't make my point well, Paul, sorry. I am not arguing against printed documents; I'm arguing against documents designed to be read as printed being distributed as on-line. Yes I need a printed manual for my phone, and my carrier provided me with one. They didn't send me to a Web site to download it and print it.

When the document is on-line, design it to be online.

Michael Hughes said...

By the way, see Geoff Hart's book on editing to see a true PDF online document. Portable yet designed to be read online.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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