RE: inline links (Re: Online help access question)

Subject: RE: inline links (Re: Online help access question)
From: <mbaker -at- analecta -dot- com>
To: "'Kathleen MacDowell'" <kathleen -dot- eamd -at- gmail -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 3 Oct 2016 13:36:10 -0400

Kathleen,



While I donât disagree, I think there is something important to add here. Links are not the only distracting thing that can occur in a document, not the most distracting. The most distracting thing is probably a word or concept that you do not understand. In a critical procedure â one that must be completed â a word or a concept that you do not understand is obviously a critical problem. If the reader continues to perform the procedure despite not understanding critical information, there is a very obvious danger that they will do something wrong in the procedure.



Then the question becomes, what is the best way to prevent them doing the wrong thing based on a misunderstanding.



If they recognize that they have misunderstood, they may decide to look elsewhere for information, which is obviously distracting in just the same way that following a link is, but may ultimately be a good distraction.



Providing a link is an obvious way to make this search for explanation easier for the reader, and to exercise control over which material they use to clear up their misunderstanding.



But there is more to it than this: the likelihood of a person performing any act is inversely proportional to its difficulty. Following a link is easier than doing a search or going to a library, which means it is more likely that the reader will try to clear up their misunderstanding rather than carry on regardless.



If we donât regard providing a link as an adequate solution to the problem of someone misunderstanding a procedure, however, then we need to take other measures. There seem to be two alternatives:



* Address the subject of the possible misunderstanding inline. This can work on a small scale, but if there are many potential points of misunderstanding, it will balloon up the text, making the procedure harder to follow and introducing a whole new class of distractions.

* Prequalify users to perform the procedure. That is, restrict the performance of the procedure to people who have been certified in whatever skills and understanding are required. In this case, removing the links makes sense because readers are supposed to understand all the required background and it would be better for them to stop when they donât understand something than it would be for them to self-educate on the fly.



In short, links perform a function, and if we donât use them, we should ask ourselves what will substitute for the failure to perform that function, and what is the best way in the circumstances to make sure that function is performed.



Mark



From: Kathleen MacDowell [mailto:kathleen -dot- eamd -at- gmail -dot- com]
Sent: Monday, October 3, 2016 1:13 PM
To: Mark Baker <mbaker -at- analecta -dot- com>
Cc: Monique Semp <monique -dot- semp -at- earthlink -dot- net>; TechWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Subject: Re: inline links (Re: Online help access question)



Both of your comments are interesting and informative.



To expand on what Mark said, then if one wants or expects a person to read to the end of a document, one should not insert links. Not that the lack would keep them reading, but it wouldn't lead them astray.



Thinking about the embedded steps though, I've worked on materials where people should not be led astray. So I'd suggest these are especially situations where links should not be used. If someone wants a refresher on a later part of a process, they could do a search. All that suggests ways in which such things should be organized, too, to assist the reader.



Kathleen



On Mon, Oct 3, 2016 at 12:01 PM, <mbaker -at- analecta -dot- com <mailto:mbaker -at- analecta -dot- com> > wrote:

Yes, I am familiar with Mysti's presentation and with the DITArati's common (though not universal) anti-inline-linking stand. The anti-linking stand in DITA has a lot to do with the difficulties of managing inline links in reused content. DITA's link management mechanisms are curiously ill-suited to this task, which has led to many people using DITA turning against inline linking altogether.

But there is something deeper at work here: a persistence of document thinking, which is particularly evident in a couple of the cons you cite:

* Statistics show that users tend not to return to a page after they link away.

Well, why would we expect them to? Document thinking says that readers are supposed to read all the way to the end of the document so the document has somehow failed if people follow a link and don't come back. But this is ridiculous. It is like suggesting that a road should not have junctions because people make take a side road and not travel all the way to the end of the main road. Readers have an information destination and there is no reason to think that one document can (or should try) to take them from their precise and individual starting point all the way to their precise and individual end point.

* Statistics show that most links simply aren't clicked.

And drivers don't take most turns in a road. But some drivers take each of the turns, and the road network as a whole relies on all of those turns being available to take. (This is not to say that there are never unnecessary links, any more than that there are never unnecessary road junctions that lead nowhere. Often people link at random rather than having a consistent well thought out linking strategy.) Document thinking rears its head again here: every part of the document is supposed to be used by every reader. If a link is not clicked, the reader is not consuming the whole of the document.

But this idea that the reader is supposed to consume the whole document and nothing but the document is bonkers. It was always bonkers, but in the paper world, where getting from one document to another was relatively difficult, there was some justification for thinking and designing this way. But in a hypertext world you can get anywhere instantly. Hypertexts are nodes in a network and readers get what they need from a successful traversal of the network, not from the consumption of the whole of a single document.

Mark


-----Original Message-----
From: techwr-l-bounces+mbaker=analecta -dot- com -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com <mailto:analecta -dot- com -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com> [mailto:techwr-l-bounces+mbaker <mailto:techwr-l-bounces%2Bmbaker> =analecta -dot- com -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com <mailto:analecta -dot- com -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com> ] On Behalf Of Monique Semp
Sent: Thursday, September 29, 2016 5:08 PM
To: TechWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com <mailto:techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com> >
Subject: inline links (Re: Online help access question)

> This second point should be elementary for all product documentation
> in the hypertext age. You should never, ever, mention a system
> function or procedure without linking to that procedure.

I whole-heartedly agree, and yet there are many admonishments for people writing in DITA to eschew links in the content. So I now include links only sparingly, but I do still include them. I just try to decide that there's a real potential benefit instead of just automatically linking to somewhat related info.

(And yes, here meant to say "DITA", not "structured authoring", because although this point is relevant to *any* writingâboth structured and "unstructured", I've encountered anti-link vehemence only when reading/hearing about DITA-specific authoring or when being edited while working in a DITA ecosystem. But of course, the argument about including links is relevant regardless of authoring/publishing system.)

There's a slideshare from 2013 that really made the rounds a few years ago in the San Francisco writing community, "Herding Tigers: Letting Go of Inline Links", http://www.slideshare.net/MystiBerry/herding-tigers.

It was timely because I'd been working in DITA in an organization that
(gasp!) had a great editing team, which was when I was first "subjected" to the "no link" rule. That was the style, and so of course I had to acquiesce.
But separate from that, I had a great written exchange with this slideshare's author.

The major points, pro (include links) and con (exclude them), boiled down
to:

Con (exclude links):
* It's a crutch that soothes the writer and wastes time (especially to maintain the links).
* Statistics show that users tend not to return to a page after they link away.
* Statistics show that most links simply aren't clicked.

Pro (include links):
* Supertasks (a task where each step is itself a complex task) benefit from links; otherwise users have to search.
* Doc reviewers *always* want links. (No, doc reviewers don't always know best. But especially if you're a consultant, you must keep the team relatively happy.)
* They "just feel right".

-Monique


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--

Kathleen MacDowell
kathleen -dot- eamd -at- gmail -dot- com <mailto:kathleen -dot- eamd -at- gmail -dot- com>

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RE: inline links (Re: Online help access question): From: mbaker
Re: inline links (Re: Online help access question): From: Kathleen MacDowell

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