Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The end of documents....


If you have to describe any technical subject you are aware that knowledge is hard to express in a straight linear sequence of information topics. In most cases you have to structure the information into information tropics and semantic connection between those => a network of information topics.

Nothing new and a trivial statement, you might say. All semantic concepts are using those principle buildup.

Yes, but why most technical subjects are still using documents or slide shows to express technical subjects?
Those media formats are linear by design. The reader has to follow the one and only linear flow defined by the author of the document. In the best case the author is able to find one of the sufficient linear paths through the network of information and the reader is therefore able to understand the described subject. But even in this case getting the hole picture, identify ways to extend the provided information, embed it to different subject etc. isn't possible or at least requires to re-construct the information tree in mind.

Ask yourself why you are using
  • A word processing software to define project information (requirements, design specification, test specification, ....)
  • Power Point to introduce a particular problem domain
  • A word processing software to trace a result of a workshop (also known as workshop protocol)
  • ....
The answer is simple. Because we simple get used to and there are no mainstream alternative media formats out there which can be used without at least one significant constrain (effort to implement and train, difficult to share, ....). The complete office suites still remains rooted in the old linear concepts. Even new players in this business adapting this paradigm (e.g. Google Docs).


I'm pretty sure that in the future documents will be replaced with applications which providing a way to describe topics as short topics and makes it easy to connect those topics with semantic links (e.g. depends on, contains, .....). A document in this scenario is just one path through the network of information for one particular use case.  This kind of application can replace todays word processing software without loosing any important feature.

In the domain of technical writing topic based authoring (e.g. using DITA information architecture) becomes more and more popular. The main use case there is to (re-)use information as much as possible to reduce creation and information maintenance costs. In my point of view that is "only" a important side effect of having the content defined in a much more usable form. Not a linear sequence of information reflecting a group of authors view but as more or less complete set of information topics linked together. The todays results are still linear documents of some format (pdf, online help formats, ....) but that only corroborate the belief that linear documents are mainstream.

Open Issue

The usability of topic based authoring isn't sufficient today. It is more or less a hand crafted creation of enriched information. To dive into the mainstream usability is the most important factor. The creation and linking of information must be at least as easy as using e.g. Mind Mapping tools (e.g. FreeMind, MindManager) combined with easy to use structured topic content editor (e.g. tools like Xopus or XMAX goes into this direction).

There’s more to come? Lets see....

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