At lunch today I was chatting with some people who work in a similar organisation to mine, but in a different part of the world. The conversation turned to our lack of conviction around these electronic replacements for brochures – you probably know the ones: here’s a sample (warning: auto-play promotional video on the page), but you could equally look at the PDF itself, or a service like scribd.’
What all of these have in common is their underlying acceptance that the printed book metaphor is the best way to present information online. There is a lot of tradition underlying this. The codex replaced the scroll as the pre-eminent form of written document over a few centuries, starting around 1700 years ago, and it really hasn’t had much competition.
Even with the latest “must-have” technology around smartphones and tablets (I won’t insult your intelligence by tying this to a particular brand of technology just for the sake of being trendy here), the latest thing that we’re trying to do is to provide books in an electronic device.
Sure, the solution that some people have – the way they want to break the book metaphor – is to use some kind of hypertext. Split the book into tiny, hyperlinked pieces, and let people navigate around by hyperlinks within the text, or through some kind of index (still the book metaphor) or table of contents (book metaphor), or search engine.
Have you ever tried to find a substantial reference work via a search engine? The website you’re using to search likely knows a great deal about you, and does its best to tweak the results to be something that you’ll be interested in seeing, but the pages it sends you to are still – for the most part – one size fits all. No attempt is made to customise the content to your own interests and needs.
The devices that we’re using to consume content (computers, tablets, smart-phones, dedicated reading devices) are capable of so much more than we ever take advantage of. We choose – for the most part – to use them to consume content that would have looked much the same some 1500 years ago: is this really an advance?
As I continue working with large amounts of information, and we still seek to present it in book or booklet form, I’m going to be thinking about how we might re-structure the information to take better advantage of the technology, so that my users get (as much as possible) what they want.