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What About the User?


When IT professionals meet to talk about Internet and Intranets, the focus is invariably on technology. Active Server, Java applets, browsers, cookies, XML, scripting, secure sockets, JDBC, push, etc. It is rarely that any attention is given to what makes good content. What does the user want? And most users are actually "readers".

The majority of content on the Internet, and on all intranets, is information. Online documents. Manuals, product information, brochures, policy, prices. This information is used by readers. Readers don't care one bit about any of the technical pieces that make up their content; instead, they want the information to be pertinent, navigable, accurate, up-to-date, efficient, and comprehensive. The majority of these reader requirements are not satisfied by technical solutions. It is document design that is the determinant.

The Internet and most intranets are primarily used as collections of reference documents. How much is this product? Where can I buy this book? What is the DNA signature of this bacteria? What is the origin of the word "mongoose"? When are my bins collected? Does Qantas fly to South America? What is the study leave policy? How do I process a bank cheque withdrawal? What is the phone number of Jim at the depot?

If you pick up a "traditional" reference document, such as a glossy Product Catalogue for office furniture, you will find that a range of skills have been used to create it. A professional photographer, a graphic designer, a marketer, a writer, a layout artist, a typesetter, a film stripper, a plate maker, a proof reader, and a printer all played small but important parts in the overall process. If you see how a typical product catalogue is produced for the Internet, the contrast is amazing. An amateur photographer perhaps, but most likely an unskilled person using a scanner. Perhaps a marketer that is yet to grasp the opportunities of the Internet. And an HTML coder, with skills in HTML but not in writing or spelling!

Too often, the finished result becomes a showcase of technology, not a showcase of the company's products. How often have you seen marquees, cute animated graphics, multi-coloured text and backgrounds, or Flash animations that perform no obvious function, on such documents?

Unfortunately, or fortunately, the standard is quite low on the Internet, so readers' expectations are similarly low. If we are going to be serious about the Internet as a business tool, then this problem has to be addressed.

The same applies to Intranet documents. All too often, an organisation that has strict standards and processes for paper documents has no controls for online documents. The result is intranets with a hotch-potch collection of amateurish, sloppy and error-ridden documents. The reason for this is that IT departments generally drive the introduction of intranets, and intentionally or accidentally exclude the traditional information owners from the process. Attention is given to converting legacy documents in the cheapest, quick-and-dirty way possible. Manuals destined for the intranet are rarely, very rarely, re-designed for this new medium.

Hypertext has a non-linear structure. The reader chooses a path through the document, and therefore has an individual view of the document. Alternatively, the reader electronically searches for a collection of words or key phrases to find the required information. Paper is a linear medium. The author controls the structure that the reader sees, and navigation is by sequential page or paragraph numbers. In hypertext documents, paragraph numbers are redundant, and confusing. But in the conversion of legacy paper documents, any paragraph numbers are left in. Similarly, paper is easier to read from, primarily because it has a much higher resolution than a computer screen. Studies have shown that readers have a much shorter concentration span when reading from the screen, and subtle differences, such as different fonts styles, make a big difference to readability. In legacy conversions, information is often left as long scrolling tracts of text, perhaps punctuated by bookmark jumps.

Good hypertext design accounts for the different medium by breaking information down into smaller chunks (to make the text readable in smaller doses), by careful selection of fonts and background colours, by using relevant cross-linking, and by protecting the authority of the document through correct spelling, punctuation and writing style.

The tardiness to correctly apply new technology is not new. The introduction of desktop publishing and laser printers produced a nasty rash of poorly designed and executed newsletters, manuals, flyers and brochures that lasted for almost five years. The transition from telegram to telex produced an equivalent phenomenon.

The attraction of technology is a powerful lure. Nevertheless, it is important that we remember that the aim of the game is to communicate information. And whether the information is a note to the milkman or an entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the reader is always king.


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