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Modeling Information in Electronic Space

Introduction to the special issue of Technical Communication, February, 2001

Jonathan Price

Over the last thirty years technical communicators have learned how strongly the two-dimensional layout of text and art affects the accessibility, legibility, and readability of a printed page. Recently, publishing information on the computer screen has forced many designers to modify the layout rules they used in print, just as writers have had to retool their style for online delivery. Similarly, wireless delivery means we have to work within drastically reduced screens, slow access, and limited service, while making our content more aware of the world around the device--the street, the store, the nearby equipment.

These electronic spaces demand a new understanding of verbo-visual structure, one that goes beyond the dimensions of height and width, formerly used as the basis of the writer’s outline and the designer’s grid underlying the evolving draft and layout. Now each item is hot, because the outline topics have become options in a menu. Clicking an item, we go in. We explore a third dimension—depth.

In what ways does our thinking change when we are creating or investigating an "information space" that has three dimensions? For many Web designers, page layout still means arranging elements on a flat plane, but now many of these individual elements open doors into a complex, confusing, and indeterminate space. From the simple calculations of area, we have moved to considerations of volume; from tables to three-dimensional arrays; from "laying out a page" to "crafting an interface for access and navigation."

As we move online, we have also been forced to become more sensitive to the dimension of time: how long does it take to traverse an individual web, to bring up a page, to dig down into the details, or to climb back to the home page?

Yes, a book has depth, and it takes time to go through it, whether we are turning from the table of contents to a chapter opener, flipping pages, or looking up an index item. So the creation of electronic information builds on the tradition of book writing and design, but now it draws on the craft of interface design and evolves the theory of hypertext, thereby shifting the emphasis from the sheet of paper to the depth of a three-dimensional structure, from moving around a page or sequence of pages to jumping here and there in a virtual universe, making experimental probes, moving up and down, forward and back, in and out, while struggling to build and maintain a reliable, usable mental model of the content . The challenge is most intense on the Web and in all forms of ubiquitous computing, because the information keeps piling up over time, continually changing in size, content, emphasis, and message. And with mobile devices, the world around the user may also be changing the content, moment to moment.

In this special issue, we bring together the work of practitioners and academics, wrestling with different aspects of the larger question: how does the Web and wireless computing change our sense of the rhetorical space we work in? Individual authors draw on the perspectives of research in fields as varied as usability and perception. They adduce theories about hypertext, knowledge management, and visual language. They explore real libraries and brick-and-mortar museums, hoping to find useful analogies for the three-dimensionality of the large, complicated stacks of technical information we hope to put on view for our audiences.

In "Visual-Spatial Thinking in Hypertexts," Richard Johnson-Sheehan and Craig Baehr stress that the visual nature of these hypertexts we so casually create requires that users think differently than they do when they read print documents. Drawing on Gestalt thinking about perception, and Rudolf Arnheim's wonderful books about visual thinking, the authors show us how much thinking goes into perceiving, and make recommendations for improving the visual composition of our Web pages, in three dimensions.

Taking physical libraries as a helpful metaphor for designing online libraries of product documentation, Sam J. Racine and Irving B. Crandall report on their research on searching and browsing in virtual space, in "Retrieving Product Documentation Online." They lay out what users need when searching for a manual in an online library, survey some major corporate libraries of documentation on the Web, and come up with heuristics for designing a search interface. They argue that the search form itself should communicate the way we have organized the materials on the virtual shelves, and, through progressive unfolding, lead users through a carefully organized process to locate the documents they need. Their forms guide the users through the halls and stairwells of the imaginary library.

Facing a similar problem, Lionel Medini, Jean-March Charlot, and Mathias Chaillot turned to knowledge-management methods to model the information in a huge archive, creating smart diagrams that help users put together a query by browsing through the graphics, choosing concepts they want to know about, and using a sophisticated model of the information to triangulate on the particular documents that might match their personal profiles. The team describes the process in "Designing an Electronic Knowledge Book." (Note: This article postponed until August 2001).

David Gillette takes us out of the office and onto the streets, to show us how going mobile forces us to expand our notions of rhetorical space. He introduces the idea of embeddedness--that our devices are enmeshed in their surroundings, receiving content from the passing world. With ubiquitous computing, we will need to help people navigate in both virtual and physical spaces. In "Metaphorical Confusion and Spatial Mapping in an Age of Ubiquitous Computing," he points out that we need to recognize that users will probably be struggling with even more spatially mixed metaphors in our interfaces, and multiple spatial maps of the virtual and physical worlds. Rhetoric is being stretched beyond the courtroom and theater, beyond the desk and home, to encompass almost everywhere.

Steve Chu says that "The Possibilities are Wireless," and sketches out the challenge and promise of delivering information in the wireless space. He shows how the main protocols used in mobile communication grow out of the familiar ground of SGML, HTML, and, more closely, XML. He analyzes the advantages and disadvantages of the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), and its XML vocabulary, the Wireless Markup Language--the tools we will be using when creating content for mobile and handheld devices. Then he describes the challenges that we face, as technical communicators, dealing with a new and evolving technology, spotty access, new audiences using the devices in unfamiliar social situations that bring new dangers of invasion of privacy, and finally, the new kind of user experience when the screen is tiny, and the delivery erratic and slow.

Because so much of our content is drifting into XML, and our material is moving from documents into assemblages of interlinked objects, Lars Johnsen proposes that we try to merge object-oriented thinking with the ideas of visual language, to get a more complete picture of the information we provide. The object orientation of a language like XML helps us ensure consistency across documents, publishing information in many media, speeding up searches, and personalizing the content. By separating format from content, XML also allows us to take advantage of stylesheets for object-by-object transformation, reorganization, and, almost incidentally, formatting. And in "Document (re)presentation" Johnsen shows us how the ideas of a visual language, advocated by Robert Horn (who invented information mapping), can give us a way of analyzing, and improving the format we assign to those information objects, as we render them on a computer screen, or in a handheld device. Johnsen shows us how a single rhetoric can combine object orientation with vision and depth.

Finally, Saul Carliner explores the way exhibit designers create shows in museums. In this three-dimensional environment, Carliner finds strategies we can apply to web sites--targeting a variety of audiences more precisely than we usually do, keeping the information from overwhelming the visitors, immersing them while separating out key themes, and layering the information so people can learn as much as they want, but not more. His report on the way design teams actually work shows the importance of signature objects (defining the subject of an entire exhibit) and the architecture of the museum itself ("Even the best signage can't fix a poorly designed museum."). And he brings out the importance of capturing the visitors' curiosity, drawing people in with story line and character, and working toward "Wow!" These theatrical and architectural strategies take us way beyond traditional technical writing, and suggest design practices that will make our Web sites and wireless information more usable, and more interesting, than most of our help systems are today.


In such a survey, we see how many different kinds of technical communicators are grappling with the new space we create in, the virtual environment that echoes and reacts to the physical world around us in ways we never considered, back when all we did was write words on paper.

These articles spring from very different workplaces: museums and libraries, nuclear power agencies and independent contractors, Europe and North America, computer documentation and scientific research. For the members of all these teams, the extension of the electronic network takes us out of the old ways of designing and publishing, to new relationships with our audiences, our content, and our own work.


Copyright 2000 Jonathan and Lisa Price, The Communication Circle
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