Index/TOC Needed in HTML &/or Browser-Based Help? (take II)

Subject: Index/TOC Needed in HTML &/or Browser-Based Help? (take II)
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Char James-Tanny <charjtf -at- gmail -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 20 May 2006 08:49:50 -0400

Char James-Tanny provided more insider information: <<To answer your questions, there wasn't a "Contents" tab as we know it. Instead, there was a "taxonomy" topic that grouped topics by categories. This, to many folks, made more sense than a TOC anyway...TOCs are arbitrary ordering systems, designed by the author.>>

Taxonomies are also designed by the author, and thus have the potential to be equally arbitrary. To work well, both require audience-centered design: you can't impose an effective structure or even a taxonomy if you don't think of the information from the user's perspective. That insight into the user is what makes a TOC effective. Its absence is what undermines a TOC, and what will undermine taxonomies too.

I suppose that so long as nobody calls it a "taxonomy" in the interface that the user sees, the end result is the same. But isn't this somewhat like renaming a rose a "flurg", simply because "research has discovered" that people have gotten bored with the word "rose"? The essence is the same ("a rose by any other name..."), and changing the name makes no difference. Ask anyone where they'll look for a list of topics and the overwhelmingly dominant answer will be "table of contents".

That being the case, why muck with what works? Call it a table of contents, and provide tools that facilitate the grouping of information into appropriate categories ("taxonomies"). This is effectively what I proposed in an earlier message that described custom TOCs designed to meet specific purposes.

<<And there wasn't an index tab. However, one of the MAML elements was for keywords, and these keywords would be used to beef up the search. There were also features like "Best Bet Keyword", which would push a topic toward the top of a search list.>>

Really. Dumb. Decision. Indexes work well because they organize information conceptually and by context. A good index provides entries such as "Print: troubleshooting font problems" beside "Print: configuring a printer" so you can compare the two entries and guess which one is most likely to answer questions. The keywords themselves are merely the superficial evidence of the thought process that went into defining and presenting these alternatives.

Search engines cannot provide that context unless it's designed into the text being searched; the keywords must not only be present, but there must be meta-information that accompanies them to provide the context for the keyword. Currently, that is the single biggest flaw in all the search engines I've used. Defining better keywords won't by itself help improve searches: the same time required to choose and test keywords would be better spent creating an index.

If you know anyone involved in the design aspect of this part of the project, please pass that distinction along. It's not trivial, and it's very important to users.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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Index/TOC Needed in HTML &/or Browser-Based Help?: From: Barbara Vega
Index/TOC Needed in HTML &/or Browser-Based Help?: From: Geoff Hart
Re: Index/TOC Needed in HTML &/or Browser-Based Help?: From: Char James-Tanny

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