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HCI and the hypertext community: style only?  10/18/04

I had a neat discussion with friend!Josh tonight about his "outsider" observations on the field of hypertext and where the work is in it right now. Some of the discussion circled things that surprised us by how they are not being addressed by the community. I jotted down some notes about things that caught my interest.

HC and hypertext communities aren't talking ... ?

It seems like there should be a lot more communication between the Human-Computer Interaction community and the hypertext community. Right now, most of the work between those two areas seems to be largely aesthetic: how do you design a web page so that people can navigate it, and what features do you put into your site to allow readers to do what they're trying to (or, perhaps, find things they weren't expecting)?

But there's so much more that could be going on! People don't only Interact with computers, they think with computers. One reason that hypertext is such a powerful tool is because it offers the potential for people to work with their information in ways that are more loyal to the way they think. Good hypertext tools usually solicit pages of raves by new users who are amazed to finally find a tool that facilitates they way they really work.

So who is:

  1. applying the research on hypertext to the ways that people actually read it?

  2. taking the research on how people browse websites (probably the largest dataset on how people read hypertext)

  3. applying that to the ways that we design hypertexts to be readable?

  4. taking the knowledge of the way that people work with computers and applying it to hypertext tools?

This stuff must be out there, but it's hard to find examples of people combining the study of how people interact with computers with the study of how people work with hypertext. "Hypertext" ought to be smack in the middle of people-and-computers. I think that Eastgate Systems has hit #4 with Tinderbox, but the prohibitive learning curve indicates that they've got a ways to go in terms of UI. I think that Dynamic Diagrams is a good example of some of the other points.

no one is looking at their hypertexts in terms of projections

Many companies right now not only have external websites but have internal websites, or documentation libraries, or both. And these libraries are typically organized and accessed around some sort of hierarchical index that you burrow down into or expand into lexia. They might allow plain-text or keyword searches. Or maybe both.

Looked at broadly, those libraries are hypertexts, and the readers of those hypertexts are very often coming in from some specialized angle that has nothing to do with the "official" hierarchy the index imposes. What is needed is specialized projections of that hypertext: indexes arranged along more of an FAQ model, or searches that give hierarchies and paths (structures) as a result. Multiple simultaneous hierarchies or paths. There's no reason not to except that the site designers aren't used to thinking of documentation as a hypertext like that, or not thinking about their site as a hypertext in the aggregate.

There's been some interesting thought about the role of narrative in business sites, and many good sites research the paths that visitors take through their sites, but few seem to be thinking (or talking) about giving readers structures for their personalized visits like customized site maps or multiple simultaneous indices.

The example we discussed was the documentation site for MySQL. What about a page that shows the site in terms of "how MySQL is SQL", or "trying to get MySQL to work with other platforms". These topics are worth more than a page, more than a lexia-- they've got their own hierarchies and paths of relevant information from sources all over the existing documentation.

napkin-sketch business model: Hypertext Projection consulting

So maybe there's a professional opportunity for a consultant or consulting company to come to a company and do just that: "We'll come in, take your site or your documentation, and organize it. In sixteen ways simultaneously. We'll talk to people about how you need to use it, how to set the new system up to grow with you, etc. And you'll have the site back at the end, plus some."

Afterward, the company will be aware of their sites or libraries as a text that readers interact with, build paths through and into. They'll have tools to continue applying that awareness to new material. Readers will have features that acknowledge and facilitate the process of building a productive or interesting narrative out of using the site.

This does depend on companies embracing that as a philosophy (internal documentation is worth the investment, or documentation will help people be productive), and that might be a tough sell. It might also require specific software or substantial redesigns of existing content, both of which might be frightening to clients.

related sites

Without getting too far into the various related fields of information-visualization or information architecture, here are some sites that seem particularly relevant. Maybe I should see if they have job openings. ^ _

Ben Fry went through MIT doing information visualization. The anemone tool shows realtime visualization of site structure, traffic, and exploration.

Dynamic Diagrams is a group I've had my eye on for some time as the work they do seems really interesting and impressive. I wonder how they work, and how their clients see them. Their case studies are fascinating and to my inexperienced eye seem to be a survey of practice in information architecture.

Document Strategies does some work in this field, billing it as "providing systems and services for converting paper documents to computer-based information and then accessing and managing that information."