Curated for content, computing, and digital experience professionals

Author: Fred Dalrymple

Footnotes, which way is the point?

I always took footnotes for granted. You need them as you’re writing, you insert an indicator at the right place and it points the reader to an amplification, a citation, an off-hand comment, or something — but it’s out of the way, a distraction to the point you’re trying to make.
Some documents don’t need them, but some require them (e.g., scholarly documents, legal documents). In those documents, the footnotes contain such important information that, as Barry Bealer suggests in When footnotes are the content, “the meat [is] in the footnotes.”
The web doesn’t make it easy to represent footnotes. Footnotes on the Web argues that HTML is barely up to the task of presenting footnotes in any effective form.
But if you were to recreate the whole thing from scratch, without static paper as a model, how would you model footnotes?
In a document, a footnote is composed of two pieces of related information. One is the point that you’re trying to make, typically a new point. The other is some pre-existing reference material that presumably supports your point. If it is always the new material that points at the existing, supporting material, then we’re building an information taxonomy bottom up — with the unfortunate property that entering at higher levels will prevent us from seeing lower levels through explicitly-stated links.
To be fair, there are good reasons for connections to be bidirectional. Unidirectional links are forgivable for the paper model, with its inherently temporal life. But the WWW is more malleable, and bidirectional links don’t have to be published at the same time as the first end of the link. In this sense, HTML’s linking mechanism, the ‘<a href=”over_there”>’ construct is fundamentally broken. Google’s founders exploited just this characteristic of the web to build their company on a solution to a problem that needn’t have been.
And people who have lived through the markup revolution from the days of SGML and HyTime know that it shouldn’t have been.
But footnotes still only point bottom up. Fifteen to twenty years on, many of the deeper concepts of the markup revolution are still waiting to flower.

Integrating Traditional Documentation with Social Media

The design brief is simple: integrate the outgoing supply chain that takes corporate product or service documentation out to users with the social media that may arise to address those same products or services. The benefits are also clear: leverage user experience, interest, and advice to everyone’s advantage.

After that, it gets confusing.

Corporate structures are brand-directed and very controlled, while social media is uncontrollable, individualistic (if not anti-brand), and hyperbolic. That’s why we love it, but how could a corporation trust it with their babies?

What does integration mean in this context? If you hire someone to help with social media, you may lose the integrity of independence. If the social media is independent and you endorse it, do you taint it? It’s likely to change rapidly, so how can you keep your position up to date? If you just react to it, how is that different than focus groups? I’ll argue that integration means, somehow, placing social media into an iteration loop in the documentation supply chain.

The scariest scenario is bringing independent outsiders to your breast and having them blast your new release. On the other hand, they’ll do that anyway, so the question is how quickly you’ll respond, and how? Who said “Keep your friends close and your enemies even closer?”

But let’s draw a distinction between unaffiliated commentators and those who are working in companies that are your customers. The former are always going to be less controllable, while the latter will likely cooperate with a cross-company integration. Just as an enlightened company will look to incorporate social media into its communications strategy, its customers will be exploring social media for its user-centric focus as a means of improving its own business practices.

Let’s assume that when social media is being practiced by independent outsiders, it will be a matter of chance whether their behavior is consistent with a corporation’s goals. When it works because all of the stars have aligned, as has happened at moments for Apple, Google, and even IBM and Microsoft, then it can be great. At other times, it may be ugly. Perhaps it’s just too early to draw those people too close.

But when the audience is composed of social media practitioners at client companies, then the field is open to all forms of social media: blog, wiki, twitter, IM, and other practices. For example, it’s easy to imagine deploying a documentation set via a wiki that issuing and client companies can both update, perhaps with a dedicated editor at the source company to keep brand, message, and metaphors consistent. That leaves the challenge of how that material gets integrated back into the supply chain so that it can feed the next release…

These are early thoughts, and tools such as wikis are low-hanging fruit. How will the less document-centric media be integrated? What new forms of relationship will develop around these practices? How can this be extended to independent outsiders?

Beyond Intent

Intent, hidden within a search click, lies at the intersection of Search and Business, as in “let’s do some business”. That search click has extra-ordinary value because of the intent to buy — that’s why we’re searching, right?

Perhaps, or maybe we’re just browsing, or surfing, and we’re not in the mood for advertisements. It could be more militant than that; perhaps we’re still trying to research our choices and would see a sales pitch as tainting the honesty of the information. At least that’s what the founders of Google originally believed.

Although the model of the web was a set of stateless pages, and a Google search box certainly fits that appearance, people’s intent is not stateless. It ebbs and flows, from entertaining looking around, to researching choices and comparing possibilities, through sourcing a chosen product (now we’re talking about a qualified buyer), to selecting fulfillment options, and possibly all the way to figuring out how to return a product that we’re dissatisfied with. That last one is probably not the best time to present an ad claiming how wonderful that product is.

This is a “long running transaction,” a series of steps that fit together and flow towards (and past) a purchasing decision, but with back-currents and eddies. And it really is a transaction in the database sense where a failure during one step can cause the entire sequence to be discarded as if it never happened. Though if you believe Sergey and Larry, it will be worse than never happening, you may lose trust in your guide through that transaction.

Has the intent changed? Depends on what that means. On one hand, what has changed across those steps is the mode of the intent. If the intent was to purchase a product, then the research, comparison, purchase, and fulfillment were clearly pieces of that intent, though they call for different approaches: organic search for the research, product focused responses for the purchase, perhaps service-oriented for the fulfillment, and some combination for the comparison.

But what about that “I need to return this product because I hate it” step? The intent has clearly changed, but it is more necessary than ever to connect this new intent to the previous steps. If not, perhaps the search engine will continue to suggest that product to a disgruntled customer with very counter-productive results.

So, what is the unifying concept? Is it intent, organized by modes? Not if what is being unified is a complete user’s story about their purchasing experience.

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