The way in which we compute has been changing over the last three or four years. In fact, I think I can safely say that what many people are doing now isn’t computing in the traditional sense of the word.
They’re accessing and using apps, whether on the Web or on mobile devices. The networks is becoming the computer for more and more people.
I won’t debate the merits and perils of going mobile and using the cloud, but things seem to be heading that way. Not just with smartphones and tablets, but also with hardware like Google’s CR-48 notebook and with operating systems like Jolicloud and Peppermint OS.
As Aaron and I, and a number of others, have been saying for a while, this move will have a profound impact on the way in which we do our work.
Back in the mid to late 1990s, I didn’t have much money to buy new hardware. Actually, my computing was done on older desktops and laptops. Of course, that hardware wouldn’t run the latest versions of Windows (at least not too well) and I hadn’t started my journey to Linux just yet.
To cut down my computing costs and to keep my hardware alive just a little longer, I turned to an application suite called NewDeal Office. NewDeal was the latest incarnation of GEOS, a once-popular graphical operating environment.
For me, the applications in NewDeal Office were more than serviceable. But what impressed me was what I called the graded interface. I’m not sure if that’s the correct name for it, but the interface had five levels: beginner, intermediate, advanced, expert, and custom. You can read more about it here.
Each level of interface builds on the last one, gradually increasing the complexity of the interface without overwhelming the user.
While at a co-working space a few weeks ago, I found myself chatting with a software developer while taking a short break. He mentioned that he’s part of a team that’s developing a Web-based e-learning application. When I said that lines between the desktop and the Web are really blurring, he seemed rather surprised.
Not because he disagreed with me (he didn’t), but because he wasn’t completely sure that anyone else was seeing the distinction between those two world eroding.
And it is slowly eroding. There’s more and more integration and interoperation between desktop and Web applications (not to mention mobile apps, too). I’m not going to debate the merits and the drawbacks of shifting to the cloud, but I do see the barriers between the desktop and the Web being eliminated eventually.
That has implications for technical writers.
The table of contents. I definitely have mixed feelings about it. It’s a classic way of organizing and navigating through information. But I find the beginning-middle-end structure of the ToC to be limiting.
Bruce Lee (yes, that Bruce Lee) often talked about set forms as a weakness of classical martial arts. One of his more memorable quotes on the subject came from a sequence cut from the movie Game of Death:
Rehearsed routines lack the flexibility to adapt.
Let’s take an example from my less-than-stellar attempts at learning martial arts: the typical block/counter taught in many styles. In a real-life situation, it isn’t always the best or most workable solution.
The same goes for the table of contents as we’ve known it since … well, since forever. In some ways, the table of contents is the rehearsed routine of the documentation world. It’s not always the best option in many situations.
We love slapping tags on things. A name gives us an idea of what those things are supposed to do, and also allows us to add a bit of gravity or levity to that thing. Take the world of tech comm, for example. How many different titles have you heard for the job we do? Technical writer, technical communicator, documentation specialist, documentation engineer, technical publishing specialist, technical author, guy or gal who writes the manuals that no one reads.
Why so many different names for what’s essentially the same thing? A variety of reasons, like wanting something that’s potentially staid or stale to sound fresh, dynamic, or trendy. And you can’t discount the desire to make something — like a job title — sound more important than perhaps it actually is.
We all know how to do that, don’t we? The problem is the options that we can give our readers. Tagging, tag clouds, search, a table of contents, an index. But what is the best option?
Once again, I’ve posed a question that has no clear-cut answer. I can’t say that I’ve found a universal solution. Each document, each delivery method offers challenges and requires a slightly different solution.
Here are a few hundred words that encapsulate my thoughts on this subject.