Navigational paradigms in very large hypertexts?

Subject: Navigational paradigms in very large hypertexts?
From: Howard Peirce <howard -dot- peirce -at- SDRC -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 7 May 1999 17:21:17 -0400

Does anyone have any experience with or know of research about
navigational models and design considerations for very large hypertexts?
By "very large," I mean roughly equivalent to ~10,000 printed pages. I'm
part of a large team of writers that produces something along this order
of documentation for an integrated CAD/CAM/CAE system.

Our current documentation (shipped in HTML) uses a "library of books"
navigational paradigm. At the front end, the user chooses one of roughly
40 "books," and navigates primarily by means of a java-based
hierarchical TOC. All the "books" are identically formatted, and
consistency of look and feel is considered very important.

However, it occurs to me that (in the words of a wise teacher I once
had) "a large enough quantitative change produces a qualitative
change"--when a thing gets big enough, it becomes a different kind of
thing. A clean, consistent design, navigated hierarchically, seems to me
a wonderful thing when you're dealing with 100-500 pages. However, as a
surrogate user navigating the help system I participated in writing, I
find 10,000+ pages of consistently formatted and navigated text almost
incomprehensible. It all becomes a blur in short order.

We are going to change authoring environments sometime in the next six
months to a year. At that time, I would like to formally propose
redesigning the current documentation set, in light of the situation
described above. Among other things, I think that we should design
variety into the documentation, such that different kinds of information
(concept vs. process vs. reference; design vs. analysis vs.
manufacturing) would have a radically different look and feel. This
would provide immediate visual and kinesthetic cues to let the user know
"where they are." That is, the WWW itself becomes a navigational
paradigm--I never get lost when websurfing, because each site is unique.
(Consider the "Bauhaus" scenario described in another thread--how easily
would you navigate the Web if all sites looked alike?) I would also like
to look into topological navigational paradigms for very large
hypertexts.

Can anyone point me in the right direction? Having any thoughts,
experiences, or reactions? References to research in this area are
particularly welcome.

Thanks,

Howard Peirce
Senior Information Developer
SDRC

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