RE: What happened to information architecture and design

Subject: RE: What happened to information architecture and design
From: <mbaker -at- analecta -dot- com>
To: <th -at- tino-haida -dot- de>, "'Janoff, Steven'" <Steven -dot- Janoff -at- hologic -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 29 Mar 2016 11:13:36 -0400

The concept of semantics has generated endless confusion over the years.
Semantics simply has to do with meaning. All content has meaning, therefore
all content has semantics. But there are different kinds of semantics.
Whenever someone says that one thing has semantics and another does not,
what they really should be saying is that the first thing has semantics of
one kind and the other thing has semantics of another kind.

For example, in the article you linked to, the author says that the HTML p
tag had semantics, while the b and i tag do not. This is absurd. All three
tags mean something, and for all intents and purposes, they mean something
on the same level. b means print this in bold, i means print this in italic,
p means print this as a block.

There is a sense, though, in which p has an additional semantic. It can also
mean, this is a paragraph, which is a grammatical unit. The b and i tags
don't have this additional suggestion of a grammatical unit. Then again,
neither do the strong and emphasis tags that are sometimes urged as
"semantic" alternatives to b and i. They still say format this differently,
but without specifying exactly how to format it. They are more abstract that
semantically rich.

This is all in the realm of markup semantics rather than the semantics of
the content itself, of course. Structured writing involves adding markup to
content to make it possible to constrain, guide, audit, and publish with
algorithms. All markup has semantics. The question is, what kind of
semantics and what are they for.

I am attempting to address this confusion about semantics in structured
writing in a series I am writing for TechWhirl magazine. The latest
installment is at http://techwhirl.com/16098-2/. It has links to the
previous articles. In this series I divide markup semantics into four
domain:

* The media domain (the physical appearance of the document on the page or
screen). HTML b and i have media domain semantics.
* The document domain (the logical organization of the document as a
document). HTML p has document domain semantics.
* The subject domain (clarifying aspects of the subject matter, or
expressing the subject matter in a way that is neutral as to the
construction and organization of documents). The DocBook errorcode tag has
subject domain semantics.
* The management domain (having to do with the management of the content,
for example for reuse) The DITA conref attribute has management domain
semantics.

A great many people have had structured writing thrust upon them without
understanding what it was for, and without adequate controls in place to
make sure that the structures being created were maintained. In many cases,
structures were created for ideological purposes and had no immediate impact
on the processing of the content. In these circumstances, there were no
short-term consequences to ignoring the structure and inevitably it became
corrupt and was eventually abandoned. In many cases, there were no long-term
consequences to this either. In other cases, it created significant problems
when someone did at last want to do something with the structures that were
supposed to be created but were not for lack of understanding, enforcement,
or feedback. (The attempt to enforce the consistent use of styles in Word,
and the consequent problems when the content was translated to XML, provides
the perfect illustration of this phenomena across thousands of companies.)

None of this changes the fact that people are successfully using structured
content using semantics from different combination of the different domains
in different proportions to address different business problems. This
includes both the use of semantics from various domains to drive the content
production process and the use of semantics for various domains to make
content easier to find, use, and repurpose, especially on the Web. The idea
of semantics is not defunct.

Nor does it change the fact that, with full understanding, proper
enforcement, clear feedback, and early detection of errors, organizations
can use subject-domain semantic markup to greatly improve the quality of
their content and to simplify the way it is written. This in turn can enable
a much more sophisticated and consistent information architecture, both
top-down and bottom-up.

The biggest challenge I find to the wider acceptance of structured writing
is writer's unwillingness to accept that structured writing can greatly
improve the quality of their work. This is perhaps due in no small part to
their exposure to half-baked and inappropriate attempts to impose structure
in the past (or present). It may also be due to their experiences with
systems that were designed and deployed in the hopes of making downstream
publishing and content management processes more efficient, but did so in
ways that were insensitive to the issues of content quality and ease of
authoring, which is unfortunately all too common today.

But the fact that is has so often been done badly does not mean it cannot be
done well, with proper understanding of what is possible and what is
required.

Mark

-----Original Message-----
From: techwr-l-bounces+mbaker=analecta -dot- com -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
[mailto:techwr-l-bounces+mbaker=analecta -dot- com -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com] On Behalf
Of th -at- tino-haida -dot- de
Sent: Tuesday, March 29, 2016 8:17 AM
To: Janoff, Steven
Cc: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
Subject: Re: What happened to information architecture and design

Hi Steven,

this could be an interesting discussion.
Being a layouter, not a tech writer, I can only provide an example of what I
see from my customers concerning semantic writing.

So, one of my customers once migrated to structured documentation, long time
ago, and the structure was implemented conforming R. Horn's "Information
Mapping".
But today, there is nothing left in their documentation of the idea of
semantics and semantic writing. The moduls ("Maps" and "Blocks") that
originally would create different content now are regarded simply as being
suitable or not suitable for layout purposes.

The question is: Would a semantic differentiation lead to a distinguishable
output? My customer does not see or does not have this requirement, or any
sufficient reason that would justify the effort. So they think about
switching to a less complicated, less semantic DTD.

I tried to find out when the idea of semantics came up (correct me if I am
wrong):
It seems that from the beginning of SGML until the late 90's, the main
advantage of using structured documents was associated with the separation
of content and machine-related layout information, so-called "generic
writing (or tagging)". Then there are some hints that the authors of the
time thought, the "Internet" and "HTML" or "XHTML" would bring a new
infrastructure where semantic differentiation might be useful, could be used
efficiently. (This was before Google, of
course...)

And today? I searched the net, but there is not much.
One blog even confuses "semantic" with "generic" or with tagging in general
(HTML itself is not semantic, and the tags are hardly generic either).
(--> https://webdesignfromscratch.com/html-css/why-write-semantic-html/)

I read a book called "DITA best practices" lately. The authors advise to
only use the DITA topics according to semantic rules.
But they do not provide facts how this could be used later on. Not very
persuasive...

Is the idea of semantics "defunct"?
I would like to hear about your and other writers' experiences.

Best regards -- Tino H. Haida, Berlin


Janoff, Steven:
> Just wanted to insert something here amid all the talk of tools, the
> field, upgrades, etc.
>
> One thing I don't see much of anymore is discussion of what to me is
> the heart and soul of technical writing/technical communication, which
> is (arguably) information design and information architecture.
>
> Has anyone seen or come across any good articles that discuss topics
> that go further along the paths carved out by Robert Horn (visual
> mapping, visual language, information mapping) and Richard Saul Wurman
> (information architecture - he coined the term - and information
> design)?
>
> I'm not talking about Edward Tufte-type stuff, although that is
> wonderful. That relies too much on graphic design talents that might
> not be available to the average tech writer.
>
> Visuals are very important, so I'm not at all ruling that out, in fact
> it's critical to the overall message of a piece, so I'm including it
> from the standpoint of Horn's integration of text, icons (graphics?),
> and symbols.
>
> I'm looking for really good, really cool examples of technical
> communication that blends these ideas. And by the way, the
> "infographics" of today, as has often been said, even here, are
> ridiculous from that standpoint because they're usually nothing more
> than showpieces, or portfolio pieces, for graphic artists, who just
> want to "express" themselves. I *rarely* see an infographic that has
> the kinds of info architecture/design qualities that I'm thinking
> about when I'm thinking of Horn, Wurman, and even Tufte. But I've seen
> enough about Tufte. Why has nobody carried the ball on these other
> two?
>
> Thanks,
>
> Steve

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Follow-Ups:

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What happened to information architecture and design: From: Janoff, Steven
Re: What happened to information architecture and design: From: th

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