- By Michele Marques, Lead Information Developer, ITSM
I'm currently reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. This book contains a lot to ponder when thinking about how we deliver technical communications.
For example, maybe I shouldn't have included the link in the previous paragraph. I interrupted your processing of the meaning of my words for you to make a decision about whether or not to follow the link. And all those people who followed the link might not come back to read the rest of this post.
We interrupt this post
Carr bemoans the constant interruptions on the internet. But in technical communications, we offer cross-references in other delivery mechanisms. Help topics include links to other topics, PDFs include live cross-references, and even printed guides refer people to other topics.
For academic printed papers and books, Carr points out that the cross-references are typically footnotes or end notes, which don't interrupt as much as a hyperlink in the middle of a sentence. One style in some help systems is to put most of the hyperlinks at the end of a topic, in a section titled "Related Topics." This encourages the reader to complete the topic before moving on to other topics. Perhaps this is a good model for other delivery mechanisms.
Skim or read deep
What really struck me was the results of a study about how people read web pages. The study tracked eye movements as people looked at web pages. They would read the first couple of sentences on a page, and then would skim down the rest of the page. Is this behavior limited to reading web pages? Or is it becoming the norm for other media?
Sometimes I wonder if it's better to stick with old media, like printed manuals, to encourage people to read the topics in manuals. I realize that most people aren't turning to the manuals for a good read - they often turn to the manuals if they need to look up how to do something specific. Skimming is a good strategy to find what you need - or to see if the topic looks like it will answer your question. But how do we encourage people to read all the necessary information in the topic - not skip the important concepts and not overlook a step in a procedure?
How do we take advantage of reading shallow?
If we can't always get people to read deep, how do we take advantage of the trend to read shallow? Do we send out links in Twitter and other social media? Maybe we broadcast short tips and tricks. Or we optimize our links so that hyperlinks always take people to good non-interrupted information, and all other links go to the end of a topic.
Do frequent heading titles help? I guess it depends whether your audience is reading a paragraph or two - or only a sentence or two - before skimming.
If you read to the end of this post,congratulations! You may be part of a shrinking breed of deep readers. I'd really appreciate your thoughts. Please leave a comment.
The postings in this blog are my own and don't nessarily represent BMC's opinion or position.