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undermining hierarchies in books (was Re: [xml-dev] How to do XMLdesign, per Jackson Structured Design)

[Dare I open a multiple-Balisage-paper-length topic the day before a holiday? I guess so. And alas, I'll be in Germany for next year's Balisage, so... and again disclaimer that these are my opinions, and my employer would be surprised to hear at least some of them.]

On 11/27/13 10:31 AM, Michael Sokolov wrote:
In my view for text (hypertext, whatever), hierarchies + some light
linking seems to be a pretty good model.
Kind of. Or, perhaps, wouldn't it be pretty to think so?

I live in the world of hierarchical texts, working primarily with the One True Format of O'Reilly 'animal' books. We apply the same set of hierarchies ("+ some light linking") to a wide variety of conversations.

Beyond the core challenge of communicating technical information, we spend a lot of time minimizing reader surprise and maximizing expectations of consistency. We tell authors that headlines have to come in the right sequence, that 'stacked' headlines without text in between are forbidden, that notes shouldn't appear next to each other, and so on.

(There are exceptional projects, of course - there are always exceptions. We do occasional projects with completely different layouts and approaches. They are labeled as exceptions, or, if they find an audience, 'distinct series'.)

We've known for years that readers are less interested in our hierarchies than we are. There are some readers who use the Table of Contents, the purest hierarchical guide to the book, as their primary approach. There are some readers who plow through the text as a linear stream. There are many many readers who use either the index or search tools to navigate, throwing off the guidance of hierarchy as they quest for particular nuggets of information.

For an example I can pick on, created with O'Reilly tools but not an O'Reilly book, you can explore my (just started) Tool by Tool, Skill by Skill at:


That opening page is the TOC. It's generated from the internal hierarchy of the book, shows the sequence (such as exists so far), and likely acts as a clustering of search terms that will someday bring readers to the book. It may also act as a source of confusion, however, as readers looking for combinations of search terms may want them together in paragraphs rather than TOCs. The index page is even worse that way.

For me as a writer, the hierarchy is convenient. It gives me a set of boxes I can define before I go to fill them, avoiding the blank page effect. It lets me make sure that chapter structures are at least roughly similar. I don't, after all, want to leave out the section on how to _use_ a tool.

For editors, the hierarchy is also helpful, allowing me to look at the sequence of a project, compare its flow to the others I've seen, and get a rough sense of how to tell the book's story to readers.

For production, the hierarchy drives layout. There is still copyedit, figure illustration, and other classic mechanics, but the actual human involvement in the typesetting is purely tweaking.

So yes, we're utterly addicted to hierarchy. Not just hierarchy - a single view of the project, of almost all projects.

And yet... that "book" is a web site, and for now at least I'm enjoying its being available as a web site. So why the book hierarchy?

Readers don't really care about the hierarchy, so far as I can tell. What I have is anecdotal, but it's fifteen years of anecdotal, so I have some trust in it. (Michael likely has better actual data from Safari, though I don't know if he can share it.)

* Many people read at least the start of a tutorial straight through. It's less about hierarchy for them than sequence, though having chapters helps them pick which parts of the later content they want to read. More advanced folks will skip around, especially skipping ahead. Once readers have worked through the initial sequence, future use of the book will be by reference.

* Reference works (which alas are largely dying in print and print equivalents) are either read by hunting through the sequence (alphabetical) or through the index. I have known occasional people who enjoy reading reference straight through, but they have become rarer.

Our hierarchies can adapt to these situations so long as we stay in a "book" context - but books are (sadly) dying. Like XML, they serve a particular audience very well, but a larger audience that used to be enthusiastic about books has wandered off to other options.

Those other options have lingering hierarchies, in site structures and in their usual underlying HTML, but readers don't tend to care about the hierarchies except as guideposts.

It's useful to know how StackOverflow lays out its pages, but visual and sequence cues dominate. At least 2/3 of my StackOverflow reading happens thanks to Google searches sending me there, and an even higher proportion of my visits to similar sites. Presentations are generally linear, whether shown as slides or video. Transcripts allow the glory of full text search.

There's little need for a curator to create hierarchies around this content, however much I may have cheered for Yahoo! when they insisted on the value of human librarians. (I still love it when librarians do such work, but it feels like a luxury that can't reach all markets.)

Maybe it's just that I'm shifting from editing books to building conference programs, or that I've spent most of the year shifting the way I see my job from explaining things to welcoming people.

I've lost my faith in the intrinsic goodness of book hierarchies.

I'm still using them, but I'm trying hard to ensure that I don't let them lock me into things that readers don't need. (Distinguishing the readers who expect continuation of previous consistency from the broader audience of possible readers is a tricky problem here.)

So where does that take me?

I'm looking for ways to create new kinds of content - things that live outside of the printed page (or pretend paper-under-glass ebooks). Some of that is live events, where hierarchy is already light, and some of that is in digital experiences. I'll be spending much of 2014 figuring out how to combine the two.

I'm trying, though, to start out as book-free, as hierarchy-free, as possible. I don't plan to throw out William S. Burroughs' style cut-up technical manuals, but I certainly expect to look for smaller useful chunks of content presented in ways that aren't just searchable, but support multiple navigation pathways.

* Heavy hypertext, not just light links.

* Small hierarchies for visual appeal and searchability, not large structures.

* Interruptable sequences.

We'll see how that goes. I'll likely be using our hierarchical tools for a long time, and the conversations will be in a world built on those expectations.

(And yes, these questions also animated much of my Gothic markup conversation, though that was largely tied to long-past data experiences.)

Simon St.Laurent

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