Monday, February 16, 2009

Telescopic text – a form of lightweight hypertext

I don’t like helps and software documentation. I’m only looking there if there is no other choice. And I’m getting really frustrated reading it, because typically the assumption that every technical writer is doing about reader’s knowledge is wrong when it’s applied to me (bad luck?). I’m either know too little (so the text is cryptic) or they are trying to explain me everything from the first grade of elementary school so I’m spending ages scrolling down dozens of pages in order to find what I’m looking for.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a system, which shows you condensed high-level description, and if you don’t know something, you drilling down there? Sounds like a hyper-text and Wikipedia is doing that for ages? Not exactly, when you are clicking on some term, you are leaving the page that you are reading at the moment. Typically reader wants to stay on the same page, but get more details here, right in the text. Recently I found an example of such approach called telescopic text, where you can click on the piece of text and "expand" it. So the technical writer would be creating a text with maximum details assuming that the reader is an idiot. After that one can markup some pieces of it into "collapsible" chunks. Well, it is probably not that simple, because we need normal text on any level, so some form of morphoanalysis might be involved, but it should be doable at least for English. System should be able to identify correlation between "expand" behavior and act proactively – if someone doesn’t what is the "database", we can automatically expand "first normal form" as well. Ideally the system should be able to learn user's level of knowledge in the specific area and present text in the form most conveniently suitable for her (e.g. minimum amount of expand/collapse needed).
Learning might finally get more fun. :)

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