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Structured content begins with the author

Documents have a structure made up of sentences, paragraphs, sections and chapters that we depend on to navigate our way through them and understand what they are about. These structures are signposted by the layout of the document. Martin Langham comments in this IT-Director.com column.


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Structured content begins with the author
Documents have a structure made up of sentences, paragraphs, sections and chapters that we depend on to navigate our way through them and understand what they are about. These structures are signposted by the layout of the document. But this structure is only skin-deep. There is no explicit structure that software tools can use to help us to navigate the document.

When an electronic document has an embedded structure, you can navigate around it using the Adobe Acrobat Bookmark facility. This provides a map of the document headings so that you can go directly to a chapter or a sub-section. You don't have to page back and forth and you always know where you are in the document. Microsoft Word has a similar Document Map tool as well as an Outline View facility.

I am surprised how few structured documents there are for these tools to work with. Less than 50% of documents published on the Internet possess a document structure that can be displayed using these Microsoft Word or Acrobat facilities. Often the only way to read a long document is to print it off and leaf through it. This lack of structure is strange when most documents published on the Internet are given a more than normal level of editing care and attention.

The benefits of document structure don't stop at easier reading - when a document has a structure you can search it more effectively and re-use parts of it. The problem is people have to be trained and motivated to design and build explicit document structures.

The first stage is to learn to create a document structure that segments the subject into separate topics and creates a logical path for the reader to follow. There are several books on how to write structured documents - I can recommend Barbara Minto's "The Pyramid Principle" which will permanently change the way that you think about writing documents. And of course, there is William Strunk's "Elements of Style" which is now available online.

I can recollect the problems that ensued in persuading people to change the way that they worked when structured COBOL programming was first introduced. A few programmers just did not seem to think in a structured way, which probably explains some of the problems with application software.

We need to be more critical of the way that information is formatted for us - we all benefit from documents that are easier to read. PowerPoint has a presentation outliner which thankfully most people use. I had a colleague who had not acquired the habit of using the slide title box so that it showed up in the outline display. It was so difficult for anyone else to reuse his slide sets we had to take him aside and educate him!

However powerful content management software becomes, its usefulness will be limited if we do not learn how to design and build structured content in the first place. To mangle the familiar phrase "Unstructured content in: unstructured content out".


Copyright 2003. Originally published by IT-Director.com, reprinted with permission. IT-Director.com provides IT decision makers with free daily e-mails containing news analysis, member-only discussion forums, free research, technology spotlights and free on-line consultancy. To register for a free e-mail subscription, click here.

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