Re: Impact of information explosion on our profession

Subject: Re: Impact of information explosion on our profession
From: Kent Newton <KentN -at- METRIX-INC -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 21 Mar 1996 07:00:00 PST

On Thursday, March 21, 1996 1:06 AM, I wrote:
>> However you want to look at it, today's cars are still buggies with
>> internal combustion engines. [...] The first cars still perform the
>> same basic function as today's.

To which Steven Owen replied:

> If you define that function as "move us from one location
>linearly through space to another location while remaining in contact
>with the ground", then yes, they perform the same basic function. And
>if you think of them as just chassis with engines driving wheels, then
>yes, they work basically the same way.

Yes, that is pretty much how I define the function of cars. At their
core, that is what they are designed to do. That's what mine does. Does
yours do something different?

> They [manuals] all get us from lacking knowledge to having
knowledge, true,
>but the difference (potentially) lies in the way they get us from one
>to the other. Take a look at books down through the ages, you'll see
>major differences in style, layout, organization, between books
>written in the 14th century and today. And while it's quite easy to
>find some real snore-inducers today, it's also easier to find useful,
>readable, easy-to-use books. And I haven't even begun to factor in
>new media like hypertext and (true) multimedia.

But you still recognize them as books. Except for differences in
language and style, you could still read the books made in the 14th
century. Yes, you would have to dig a little more, but you could still
get the information you wanted

> Language is linear, certainly, but how often have you used a
>reference book linearly? Even if it has good introductory material
>and conceptual overviews that you read through linearly when you first
>work with the product, you almost certainly go to a hunt & read
>method afterwards - and most people go straight to hunting around for
>topics, following references, checking the index and then going to
>the page that contains the topic they want. Why, it sounds almost
>like hypertext! :-)

> Hypertext is not easy. There are far, far too many poor examples
>of it today, being called hypertext. Good hypertext takes a lot of
>work and good information design, a careful balancing act between
>providing enough entry points and links to be accessible but not
>vivisecting the information down so far that you go crazy trying to
>find a solid bite to eat, between providing enough cross-referencing
>and losing the user out there in hyperspace. Good hypertext thrills
>you with out effortless and easy it makes learning.

Once readers find the topic they want, though, they read it in a linear
fashion. It has to start at point A and move them to point B in a
logical manner. All I'm arguing is that we shouldn't get so caught up in
designing the perfect delivery tool and forget about providing the right
content to deliver.

> Likewise, multimedia, information that uses text, graphics, sound
>and motion and whatever else, in coordinated conjunction, is not easy.
>While it's easy to find many examples of less-than-effective
>multimedia, that doesn't mean the idea is bad. Good multimedia
>draws on both the analytical and creative sides of the brain (to
>recognize, parse and understand words and to almost simultaneously
>perceive images, colors, textures that add relevance to the words).
>Truly great multimedia lets you drop into that zoned-out state of
>mind where you're focusing entirely on the material and not noticing
>the process itself, or the flow of time.

> Truly good hypertext is out there, although it's hard to find.
>Does anybody have any favorite suggestions for well-done hypertext?

> Truly good multimedia is even harder to come by. I don't have
>any electronic examples. I think that, in the computer realm, the
>potential of multimedia is mostly unfulfilled to date. Comic books
>and graphic novels can be impressive low-tech demonstrations of the
>concept. Check out Scott McCloud's excellent non-fiction graphic
>novel, _Understanding Comics_.

Mr. McCloud's book is entertaining and informative. But I would call it
an graphic thesis instead of a graphic novel :-)

> The skills and abilities we bring to writing are in many ways
>unchanged from those required in the past. An understanding of the
>topic (which means the ability to quickly grasp new topics, to
>research and interview), the ability to organize information and state
>it concisely, intelligibly. The ability to write, in short.

These are the things I don't want us to neglect in our headlong rush to
the latest delivery system.

> But the potential techniques for human communication are much
>broader, and will ultimately require new and different applications of
>those skills, along with the skills of related fields, like
>illustration and graphic design, information analysis, interface
>design, cognitive design, industrial design. We're also seeing our
>role change, from passive after-the-fact documentation to more
>integrated involvement with development. Documentation is no longer
>discrete and entirely separate from the product. Nor can we be
>discrete and entirely separate from the product development process.

These things are all important, and I didn't mean to suggest that we
should neglect them. But the greatest illustrations or page design built
soundly on the concept of how the user process information do no good if
the text explaining the illustration or poured into that design are
poorly conceived or executed.

Kent Newton
Senior Technical Writer
Metrix, Inc.
kentn -at- metrix-inc -dot- com

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