My job title is "Technical Writer" but I don't write much. I work with engineers, helping them to explain their work. Most engineers can write just fine. I bolt organization onto their stuff.
Some engineer excitedly says "Hey, I documented the new way to twiddle the frobnitz." And I say, "Awesome. Hmm hey, I'm looking at the frobnitz-twiddling instructions and they haven't changed since 2006. And then I looked at our page about frobnitzes, and there's no link to your new instructions. And then I looked at our page that lists different kinds of twiddling, and there's no link to your new doc there either. I used our handy intranet search engine, and it can't find your instructions." And the engineer says, "Oh, I didn't change the old document. It was in some weird format I couldn't figure out. Instead, I wrote a new document. My document is in this experimental new online WYSIWYG LaTeX editor I've been working on a normally-disused port on a server named beware-of-leopard. Oh hey, do you think people will have trouble finding and reading my stuff?"
I start weaving their new document into the rest of our stuff. Adding links between pages; marking old documents obsolete; linking to new documents. Maybe I notice that the new document doesn't just talk about frobnitz-twiddling, it also explains frobnitz-fiddling. Maybe I remember that some other pages talk about fiddling, too. Maybe it's time we set up a page about different kinds of fiddling to link to all of those...
This is "Information Architecture". I read this book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web and it's a pretty good introduction to the topic. Most importantly, this book describes the problems well:
- Authors get !!excited!!1! about silly stuff and forget what their audience needs. E.g., every restaurant website wants to play you a flash animation before it will tell you if the restaurant's open on Mondays.
- Expert authors use precise language—unlike the sloppy language their audience uses when searching for information. When I search for [blender], will I find your "Variable-speed Food Processor" page?
- You can set up navigational aids to help people find their way around. But now you have to maintain them. And maybe there are a few of "you" and you need to agree on an organizational system.
- Expert authors know the topic too well. They design organizational schemes that only make sense to experts. If they've never maintained such a system, they might not make an extendable system; their system isn't likely to "play nice" with the system that other expert author over there came up with.
- Expert organizers don't know the topic. They design organizational themes that don't reflect reality; they say "twiddling and fiddling rhyme, so I guess they're the same thing; they can share a page" when the hell they can. Expert organizers point out that the available plethora of content management systems provide inconsistent metadata and decides the solution is one new CMS to rule them all.
- Expert authors and expert organizers will need to work together, so people skills are importan– what's that? Your expert authors are computer programmers and your organizers are indexers and librarians? You're kinda doomed, buddy. (OK, the book doesn't say that. I said that.)
This book is an introduction, a primer. It touches on many topics, but doesn't go into depth. Still, there's plenty of value in that. There's information in here about how to "sell" yourself as an information architect consultant. I've never had to do that, and would frankly have been at a loss on how to go about it. (Good organization is like good technical writing: when it's done right, it fades into the background. The bad news is that if you're trying to explain why you should be paid a bundle, you show folks this great information organization and they say "Well, this seems fairly straightforward, what's the big deal?")
I liked this quote from Vivian Bliss of Microsoft:
...Improving information systems affects people, process and technologies... In other words, technology alone is not the answer. Just as merely tweaking the UI is not the answer, nor is building a taxonomy that is not flexible or able to be leveraged in publishing and finding. Another key is to have a multi-disciplinary team. Just one discipline does not have the answer.
Yeah. There's not just one technique to apply everywhere. The solution depends on the problem. There's a variety of interesting problems. (Even though they all seem to have the same symptom: "We can't find our stuff.")
Looking back, I see that I haven't written a book report; I've rambled a rant. It probably didn't make much sense; sorry about that. If it didn't make sense but seemed kind of interesting, then you might enjoy reading Information Architecture. It really is a pretty solid introduction.