Documenting in N-Dimensional Space
As technical communicators, we are being challenged with how to structure information in a multiple dimensional space made possible with Web technology.

It is commonplace these days to find information on the Web and the use of the Web for technical communication is still in its infancy. I have discovered that in this networked world, the places we find information are no longer only one or two dimensional. It is no longer simply about words on a page (or a screen). Technical information is presented now on a multidimensional cyberscape. As technical communicators, we are being challenged with how to structure information in a multiple dimensional space that site maps usually cannot do justice to fully. From our use of language in a structured way, we have learned to write in an optimal way to convey information to our audiences in the linear dimension of reading. Then from our work in using layout and design, we have learned to structure both text and graphics to optimize the presentation in two dimensions. Now with the Web we are using multiple dimensions. And we are not only looking for information on the Web, but we are also contributing to the Web with our own technical content. The considerations for how to present content are becoming more numerous. Though you might not have the time or the resources for considering all these options, here are some ideas about Web technology in technical communication.

Though some critical business information is best handled using email or online discussion forums (or dare I suggest instant messaging), there are many ways to use Web sites for communicating that are coming into mainstream use. For collaborative work, forums and emails do not seem to provide a permanent place for information that can be reviewed and edited by many people. But no one has time for developing static HTML pages either. Recently, Wikis have surfaced to handle the need for collaborative work. While Wikipedia.org is the most popular collaborative site on which anyone in the world can participate, it is a technology that is not limited to public collaboration. Wikis are web sites that allow specified users to access the content in an edit box within the browser. Wikis seem a great solution for allowing multiple authors to work on a piece. It is not clear if Wikis are the best tool for corporately owned intellectual property as much as for public collaboration.

Of course another trend in Web technology is use of databases behind the site, providing the content as needed in an automated fashion. Web sites these days seem to be automated with a database behind them with labeled and prioritized content for just about anything. And it seems you cannot go anywhere without a shopping cart, whether purchasing items or simply picking up information. I wonder if that is the future of news broadcasts or technical documentation: shopping for the information you want to read and then asking for a user friendly presentation of it when you are done shopping. Look for more information on content management systems for Web sites. There are a lot of open source options out there as well as popular development environments for databased solutions. I suspect that future competitions will need a category for how well content is organized in a database or content management system apart from how well the presentation of that content is designed.

Another popular tool worth considering is the Web log or blog for short. I am skeptical about the usefulness of blogs for presenting large amounts of content, but they are certainly popular and seem the best way for experts to jot down their ideas and thoughts and allow others to look for trends or ideas by following key people in certain subject matter areas. Blogs are more like journals and follow a linear trail of development over time with entries by the author on each day or each week. They may be a component of a successful communication system when used with other Web technologies.

Another consideration is the use of search engines on a Web site though we do not have the time to discuss all the issues that this raises. The scope of the search is one important variable and whether every word on the site or only key indexed words are used is an example of one the decisions that must be made when using this type of tool to assist navigation. There are so many options for how to navigate a site: there may be nav bars or tabs or all sorts of menus, there may be links or image maps or popups or roll overs. In fact, a Web site simply be a portal with links to other sites or more detailed information in multiple and different places. Newsletters are common these days that have brief summaries of information with links to more details on the same or other Web sites. You may receive the newsletter as an email or find the newsletter as a main page of a Web site.

We begin to use the word architecture to describe the design of the virtual space and as architects of information we are designers of communication in this new medium. But architecture is only an analogy and will only get us so far. The spatial dimensions of the Web are not the only concern; the dimension of time is also an important factor in the development of technical information, especially when technological generations are shortening and previously a time to market is measured in years, but now time to customer is measured in minutes. Getting critical business information to a decision maker immediately is as important as getting it there accurately and concisely. When and how frequently to post and update information are other important considerations.

So the Web is yet another medium with which we will have to at least become familiar, and perhaps even shape as we decide the best Web genre for publishing our technical content. As our help systems and documentation become more online and networked, as we deploy our information either through an internal Web site or the World Wide Web, we must learn the ways of multidimensional communication. Whether you are sharing information on the Web for the general public and potential customers or sharing information on in intranet (or enterprise portal) for use inside the corporation, Web technology has become a part of the infrastructure for distributing information. While it may be obvious that the Web is the quickest and cheapest way to distribute technical information to a wide or at least distributed audience, the exact mechanism for delivering that information on the Web now involves considering a multitude of options. We must learn how to map information to that cyberscape, and we may also be able to help shape that artificial dimensionality. As technical communicators, we do not often think about ontologies or knowledge architectures, about how knowledge in a broad sense should be organized and made available, but we may have something important to contribute to that task in the coming years.

Copyright © by Bill Albing. Some rights reserved.

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Contributors to this page: Bill Albing .
Page last modified on Sunday, May 08, 2005 12:12:25 pm EDT by Bill Albing.

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