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Online is not paper

For many, the major challenge in moving from unstructured to structured documentation, or page layout to reflowing text, or paper to online, is the shift in mindset required. Old design paradigms don't fit in new media design.

By Tony Self

I am trying to convert a small product marketing Web site to a printed brochure. I don't have much experience with paper brochure design, so I enlist the help of a graphic designer with expertise in print. One of the key features of the Web site is an embedded video showcasing the product. So I tell my print expert I want to retain video in the printed brochure. She tells me that I cannot have video in a paper brochure. I tell her it's not negotiable, and she'll have to figure out a way of making it happen. She insists it cannot be done, so I tell her she needs to buy a better graphic design tool, because surely this isn't the first time someone demanded a video in a paper brochure. Without the video, the brochure won't adequately explain the product.

You've probably guessed by now that the scenario described is not real. But if I switch the media, the scenario becomes a common occurrence in the life of an online document consultant.

There are strong forces that require paper documents to be converted to online documents. Cost, "everyone else has their content online", efficiency of updating, "Single Point of Truth", document control, accessibility, discoverability, and usability are some of those forces. Surprisingly, for the custodians of paper documents charged with managing the conversion, there is often a reluctance to embrace the migration. For those custodians, the paper version remains the primary document, and the Web version secondary. Key features of online are often ignored, while much time and effort is spent trying to imitate the paper design in the online design. PDF is seen as an easy path, because PDF is really a digital replica of the paper document.

Equivalents of demanding that video appear on paper are commonplace. "The text needs to be displayed in our custom company font." "Paragraphs need to be indented by 1.22 cm." "Headings have to be sequentially numbered." "The version number needs to be "printed" in the "footer" of each page." "The photos need to be in a high resolution so that they look great if someone prints the Web page." "The page background has to be in this PMS colour." "I want the links to be dark grey without underlines." "Footnotes need to be at the bottom when someone prints the Web page, because the pop-ups don't print." "I want the browser home button to link to our home page." "I want the browser window to open at 1900 pixels wide so that the logo doesn't get cropped." "Can you squish the image so that it lines up with the end of the sentence?"

Every time a decision is made that sacrifices Web features in order to maintain a defunct print requirement, the cost and usability of the document is negatively affected. As consultants, we should raise our voices to protest this wasteful practice.

Paragraph Numbers

Paragraph numbers are an artefact of paper documents, and don’t work well with online. For example, search results will show a number that has absolutely no meaning to the user unless they have a good memory and a complete mental model of the section structure of the document:

This also means that results cannot be sorted alphabetically, and that a good portion the available TOC space is consumed by the number:

Heading hierarchies embedded in topic titles

You have used hierarchical heading styles through the topics. For example, one topic may have a title in h2, while another has a title in h5. This is a "paper" way of thinking. The hierarchy should be stored in the TOC, not in the heading styles. This will cause problems where h6 is sometimes an “inline heading”, but other times a topic heading. The option of using the feature in authoring tools (such as RoboHelp and Flare) to calculate topic styles based on TOC hierarchy when output to page layout media such as PDF is also lost.

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Also published...

A derivation of this article was published in the IconLogic I Came, I Saw, I Learned blog and newsletter in July 2014.