Online vs. print: two types of content

Subject: Online vs. print: two types of content
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 6 Aug 2002 08:50:24 -0400

One thing that I didn't make particularly clear in my previous, longer
message was something that only occurred to me belatedly. Interesting how
sometimes you have to ramble on for a while before you can clearly see the
principle you've been circumnavigating at great length. Editor, heal
thyself! <g>

Here's the basic notion. There are always two types of content you must
account for when you create any kind of written material. (There could be
others, but for the sake of simplicity, let's stick with two.) First, there
are the actual "facts" you're presenting: "do this, in this order", "this
icon does X", "here's how all these procedures fit together", and so on.
That type of content remains largely unchanged between print and online
information, and that's why single-sourcing is possible.

The second kind of information is structural: How does this particular chunk
relate to the interface? How does it relate to other chunks? What is the
general context for this chunk? What is the specific context? What do I need
to know before reading this chunk, and what subsequent information does this
chunk prepare me to deal with? This is the kind of content that can't be
easily single-sourced; you can do it, but you must understand right from the
moment you begin building the information that this structural information
is necessary.

Since the "structural" information takes the form of a checklist of sorts
(e.g., this is a large topic, and thus needs a miniature table of contents
in the first screen), it's not something you'd do in traditional
single-sourcing; it's more like an add-on step that tells you to create
content that defines the structure. That content then becomes part of the
file or database used to generate the print or online versions.

In my experience with documents that show signs of having been
single-sourced (formally, or by dumping a printed manual online), this is
the key missing information. That observation by no means suggests that
single-sourcing produces inferior information; all it says is that the
approach must include recognition that even if the content is relatively
easy to single-source, there are things that must be part of the design
process that go beyond simply the content.

That's still a bit more unfocused than I'd like it to be for a good
description. More rumination required!

--Geoff Hart, geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada
580 boul. St-Jean
Pointe-Claire, Que., H9R 3J9 Canada
"User's advocate" online monthly at
"The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can
think."--Edwin Schlossberg, designer (1945- )

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