An information development methodology for the World Wide Web.
Along with proficiencies in preparing paper-based publications, technical communicators need to gain skills in developing information for Internet delivery. The Internet's World Wide Web has increasingly been used as an information dissemination platform for business and technical information, entertainment, publishing products, education, government information, and research (December and Randall 1996). The Web has expanded rapidly - by early 1996, there were over 85,000 sites (net.Genesis Corp. 1996) with an estimated 25 million pages of information available for access (Lycos, Inc. 1996).
With this expanding environment, however, the focus of information development can quickly become technology-oriented, as some of the books, seminars, courses, and even academic programs that emerged during the rapid rise of interest in the Web demonstrate. Although this technical information, such as the syntax of the Web's native language - hypertext markup language (HTML) - is a part of Web information development, technical communicators need a broader, more process-oriented approach.
For a technical communicator, developing information involves shaping and negotiating meaning and making many choices involving technical, aesthetic, and usability concerns. And, as technical communicators know, developing information requires keen skills in planning, analysis, and design (Grice 1989) in addition to skills in representing information in a particular medium.
This article summarizes a methodology for developing information for the World Wide Web. I introduced this methodology in a paper book (December and Randall 1994), expanded it in a later book for professional Web information developers (December and Ginsburg 1995), and maintain a World Wide Web site summarizing it (December 1996). The philosophy behind my approach is that developing information for the Web should rely not only on HTML implementation skills and page layout techniques, but should also encompass a set of processes. Developers can use these processes to take advantage of - and work with - the unique qualities and characteristics of the World Wide Web using a variety of skills.
THE WEB'S TECHNICAL DEFINITION AS A COMMUNICATION SYSTEM
Although technical communicators need not understand all the details of how the Web operates, they should know important concepts and terminology as the basis for beginning to understand the Web as a new medium.
The World Wide Web is a distributed system in which information providers and users participate. Information providers use the World Wide Web to distribute hypermedia (hypertext and multimedia) over networks. This information transfer follows a client/server model of communication. Users of client software programs, called Web browsers, retrieve information from Web servers. Each Web server acts as a kind of a "broadcast station," making its information available in a standard format to any requesting Web browser. Users may use different kinds of Web browsers, made by different software companies, but standard formats for this data transfer ensure a degree of compatibility among the servers and clients.
Web developers have the opportunity to provide a variety of information types through the Web. Web browsers may rely on software programs called helper applications which interpret and display multimedia or specially defined data formats. Web browsers that can interpret applications written in the Java computer language are "Java-enabled" and offer the user possibilities for interactive applications and information display (December 1995a).
Users and information developers communicate on the Web via networks. Web browsers and servers are usually located on different computers: the server on the information provider's computer, and the browser on the users' computers. These computers, connected by networks, share data according to a set of rules for data transfer. The physical network joining these computers may be connected to the cooperatively run global collection of networks known as the Internet. Alternately, the clients and servers may be on a private, corporate network called an intranet. For the remainder of this article, I'll focus on the Web as globally deployed on the Internet.
Whereas this description of the Web reveals its chief systems and components, a communicator should not be satisfied with only this technical-level understanding. To provide other levels of understanding, I next discuss what I call the Web's media characteristics and qualities.
WEB MEDIA CHARACTERISTICS
I use the term "media characteristic" to refer to properties of the Web that are intrinsic to the information deployed on it. These characteristics are part of what a technical communicator needs to consider when deploying information on the Web. Information on the Web tends to be characteristically:
* Unbound in space/time: Web information on a publicly available Web server on the Internet can be accessed by anyone with a Web browser at any time (except for server or network interruptions). Access to the Web is limited, however, to those users with an Internet connection, browser software, and the knowledge necessary to operate the Web browser. Studies of this population reveal that it is far from representative of the world population. A 1995 survey found that Web users were wealthy (U.S. $63,000 average income), had a median age of 32.7 years, were mostly male (70.7%), were mostly white (83.2%), and were mostly located in the U.S. (76.2%) (Graphics, Visualization, and Usability Center 1995).
* Bound in use context through associative linking: Authors of Web works create hypertext, which Berners-Lee characterizes as "text that is not constrained to be linear" (1995). Web-based hypertext, more significantly, is networked so that a set of hypertext need not be constrained to content from a single server. Information developers typically create links to resources all over the Internet. Automated software programs likewise connect works to each other by collecting information from hypertext pages and making references to these pages available to users through searchable databases. As a result, Web works become enmeshed in a context that reflects their use and meaning.
* Distributed, non-hierarchical: The Internet has no central node; its patchwork of networks brings together many personal, local, regional, and global networks. And the Web's technical organization as a system using a client/server model makes it possible for the Web to contain many servers as outlets for content.
This characterization of the Web as unbound in space/time, bound in use context, and distributed and non-hierarchical is my way of articulating the nature of the "stuff" of the Web. These characteristics influence how my methodology's processes interrelate.
WEB MEDIA QUALITIES
There are also qualities of the Web that information developers may or may not exploit. I use the term "media qualities" to refer to optional possibilities in a Web work. These qualities, as well as the Web's media characteristics, do not necessarily relate exclusively to the Web, but may be shared by other media. Moreover, although these qualities are not what I call the Web's inherent characteristics, they are nevertheless widely used in practice on the Web.
A Web work can be:
* Multi-role: The Web's users might be not only information consumers but information providers as well.
* Porous: A Web work need not be a single file of hypertext (a page), but can involve a set of pages linked by hypertext (a "web"). Hypertext broken up in this manner gives users multiple entry points for encountering information.
* Dynamic: The Web changes rapidly, with new technologies (servers, browsers, network hardware) as well as new content introduced continually.
* Interactive: Because the Web is a system of hypertext, a user can be selective in making choices about what information to view. The Java computer language adds further interactivity through computer programs called "applets" which can be embedded into Web pages. These applets can provide real-time, continuous interaction between the user and the Web page.
* Competitive: Because of its distributed characteristic and dynamic qualities, the Web's content developers face extreme competition. Moreover, a Web work, even if it doesn't change, alters in value as the works it may connect to change and as the works that link to it change.
These qualities of the Web - its multi-role, porous, dynamic, interactive, and competitive possibilities - influence what strategies a technical communicator can use when engaging in Web development.
AN INFORMATION DEVELOPMENT METHODOLOGY FOR THE WEB
Patterned after design and development processes similar to those used by many technical communicators (Grice 1989), writers, designers, and software developers (Booch 1994), this methodology involves six processes and six elements. I base this methodology on the characteristics and qualities of the Web and on the experiences of Web users.
My methodology involves six sets of information, which I call elements:
1. Audience information is a store of knowledge about the target audience for the web as well as the actual audience who will use the web.
2. The purpose statement defines the reason for and scope of the web's existence.
3. The objectives list defines the specific goals the web should accomplish.
4. The domain information is a collection of knowledge and information about the subject domain the web covers.
5. The web specification is a detailed description of the constraints and elements that will go into the web.
6. The web presentation is the full description of the technical structures (hypertext and other media) by which the web is delivered to the users.
The communicator develops these elements while engaging in these six processes:
1. Planning is the process of defining and gathering information about the web's audience, purpose, objectives, and policies for information development and use.
2. Analysis involves evaluating information consistency and correctness as well as checking the technical makeup of the web.
3. Design is the process of creating a map of the relationships among pages of the web, as well as of specifying the look and feel of individual pages.
4. Implementation is the process of creating files of HTML and associated software, such as Java applets.
5. Promotion involves providing publicity releases for general Web audiences, potential users, and current users.
6. Innovation is the process of continuously and creatively working to improve the web to meet user needs.
You'll notice that this methodology contains many of the same elements as a traditional information development process and shares a resemblance to software engineering practices. However, since Web works often are very dynamic and competitive, a web information developer should work on all these processes continually. There is no "final state" analogous to a ship date for a paper document, software, or CD-ROM - every day is a new deadline, and each day brings a new information environment.
PLANNING FOR THE AUDIENCE AND PURPOSE
In the first stages of the life cycle of a web, your focus will be on the processes of planning and analysis. In particular, you'll need to define the purpose of your web and develop audience information. Audience analysis is key in virtually all technical communication tasks (Anderson 1991). This planning and analysis require that you ask and answer questions such as: Who will use this web? What will they gain from it?
A useful method to generate audience information is to make a list of information about the audience's background, characteristics, and concerns. This information may not ever be complete, but developers can create and maintain a store of information that grows over time.
At first, don't try to reach too broad an audience (not, for example, "everyone using the Web"), but focus on a subset related to your purpose. For instance, if you are preparing a web for a company selling modems, you might define your audience as "potential, current, and past purchasers of the modems." You may have several audiences for the web. For example, in addition to modem buyers, you could also be communicating to company stockholders, employees, or suppliers. One useful technique is to create a diagram showing the audiences you will reach with your web.
Another focus in the early phase of web development is to define your purpose. It's a good idea to have a written purpose statement available at all times during web development. At first, you might state the purpose in general terms, such as "to create a presence for our company in cyberspace." However, it is best to make your purpose statement more specific even at first, such as "to provide information about our company's products."
The purpose statement and audience information together go a long way toward articulating what the web is about and are the key pieces of information to develop early in the web's development life cycle.
SETTING OBJECTIVES AND GATHERING DOMAIN INFORMATION
Given an audience and a purpose, you can next focus on forming a list of specific objectives, or goals, for the web to accomplish. For example, a web's purpose statement might be "to provide information about our company's line of modems," and this web's audience definition might be "prospective customers." The objective list for this web might be:
* List the pictures, prices, schematics of all our modems.
* Provide ordering and service information.
* Provide background (domain) information about modems to interest prospective customers and help them use our products.
Once you have created a set of objectives, the next step is to gather domain information that supports these objectives. The domain information is a collection of knowledge and information about the subject domain the web covers. This includes information that the users of the web will encounter and information that the web developers need to design or implement the web.
For example, a web offering modems for sale might draw on a variety of information about the use, mechanics, principles, and specifications of modems. Although not all this information would necessarily be made available to the users of the Web, this domain knowledge may be helpful for the web developers to understand the vocabulary and concepts associated with the products.
Often, this domain information makes a good complement to the information the web offers. For example, a modem manufacturer with a good collection of modem facts might find that interested buyers visit that web for technical information about modems and, in the course of this visit, are informed of the company's products.
DESIGNING A WEB
In designing a web you should take into account the web's purpose and audience. A good designer knows how to achieve the effects called for in the most flexible, efficient, and elegant way. To design a web, you should have a thorough grounding in hypertext, multimedia, Java, and other programming possibilities, as well as knowledge about how particular web structures affect an audience.
Because of the porous quality of a web, you need to consider how a variety of audiences might find different "ways into" your information. Hypertext can provide alternate views of information and alternative routes for users to follow based on their needs and interests. A good way to provide this flexibility is to separate information into manageable page-sized chunks, and then provide cues for the reader about the web's information structure and content, context, and navigation. A web designer thus creates an overall link architecture for a web - specifying page content and the hyperlinks among various pages to connect information along the routes of user needs.
A web designer should also create a coherent and consistent "look and feel" for the entire web. One way to do this is to use principles of page layout and design and provide the user with a variety of visual cues. These cues, consistently placed on pages of the web, help users navigate and use the web's information. Because a web is characteristically bound in its use context, these cues should help reveal that context, so that the user can find related information and find how the web relates to other areas of knowledge.
IMPLEMENTING A WEB
After you've completed a web design, the next step is to implement the web within any limitations on its technical makeup that you defined in its specifications. The initial implementation might be a prototype that is not released publicly but is available for testing by a set of representative users.
A web implementer creates hypertext markup language files (HTML) and may also create Common Gateway Interface (CGI) programs and/or Java scripts or applets. The implementation process resembles software development because it involves using a specific syntax for creating hypertext structures in HTML or for writing programming language code statements.
Here are key implementation practices:
* At the outset, create a stable, extendible directory and file structure to manage the web's files and/or software components (including CGI or Java programs).
* Use HTML tools such as editors and authoring environments where helpful. Note that some of these editors are "translators" from authoring programs meant for paper-based publications and are not always customized for hypertext development.
* Check the web's implementation using various browsers to ensure that the HTML can be interpreted properly.
* Use templates to support the consistent look and feel defined in the web's design.
ANALYZING A WEB
During analysis, you examine a web's elements to see whether it is accomplishing its objectives, whether it is implemented correctly, and whether its domain information is correct and up-to-date. The goal of this evaluation is to identify problem areas.
Key analysis practices are:
* Observing representative audience members using your web (usability analysis).
* Evaluating the consistency and verifying the correctness of the domain information.
* Checking the technical implementation of the web with HTML validation tools.
THE WEB'S RELEASE AND PROMOTION
The decision to publicly announce the release of your web should not be made lightly. During the time immediately following its public availability, your web will receive a great deal of attention not only from the audience members it attempts to reach, but also from people involved in web resource indexing as well as automated indexing software.
Once your web is ready, you can make its existence known to online communities through publicity. You can also form relationships with other webs that reach a similar audience or have been prepared for a similar purpose. Another way to further promote a web is to use specific marketing strategies or business models customized for the environment of the Web (December 1995b).
In doing this promotion, it is important to follow online community norms. You should avoid "spamming" (indiscriminately sending messages to large numbers of mostly uninterested people) any communication forum with news of your web's release. Instead, you should aim publicity to appropriate online (and offline) mailing lists and promotion services.
Despite the linear description of the processes of Web development described here, the work of a web is never done. Because a web is a round-the-clock, interactive service, developers should expect feedback from users and anticipate their changing needs.
Key innovation practices are:
* Continuously and creatively working for improvement to meet user needs.
* Based on analysis, user testing, and focus groups, identifying new user needs.
* Identifying new technologies that may help you meet user needs better.
Ultimately the goal of innovation is to continuously improve a web's quality by making sure that the processes of planning, analysis, design, implementation, promotion, and innovation are ongoing. Developers can share information about the web's elements and ensure that the information in the web meets user needs in terms of both content and interface.
Although the methodology outlined here for developing a web won't work flawlessly in all situations, it can serve as a basis for approaching many of the issues of web information development.
To a casual Web user, this formal methodology might seem an encumbering amount of complication on what may seem to be only the task of "writing HTML" or creating a "home page." However, identifying processes and elements, and focusing on them need not stifle creativity - in fact, a process approach is an emphasis of many quality improvement programs (Deming 1986). And, as many Web users might attest, a well-developed web usually has a far greater value than one that is hastily put together. In particular, a web intended for business or professional communication should not only reflect a consensus of meaning among the sponsors and originators of the information, but must also reach a diverse audience and continuously change in response to user needs.
In practice, much information deployed on the Web is poorly structured. Technical communicators, with their expertise in shaping information, can play a significant role in improving the quality of information on the Web.
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Graphics, Visualization, and Usability Center. 1996. "GVU's 4th WWW user survey home page." Atlanta, GA: Georgia Institute of Technology College of Computing. http://www.cc.gatech.edu/gvu/user_surveys/
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JOHN DECEMBER is president of December Communications, Inc. and author of several widely used and frequently accessed World Wide Web-based reference publications about the Internet and the Web. He is also coauthor of The World Wide Web Unleashed and HTML & CGI Unleashed, and author of Presenting Java, all published in 1995 by Sams.net, an imprint of Macmillan Computer Publishing. He holds an M.S. in computer science and an M.F.A. in creative writing, and he is a Ph.D. candidate in communication and rhetoric at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He is a member of STC. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
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|Title Annotation:||Special Issue: Technical Communication in Cyberspace|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1996|
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