Making Sure the Form Fits the Medium
When independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr's report on the president was released over the Internet recently, Dan Bricklin saw it as an opportunity to put his ideas into practice. A longtime innovator in the software field, Mr. Bricklin understood that the Starr report not only signaled the dawn of a new era in direct democracy, but also signaled a coming of age for the World Wide Web as an instrument for the distribution of key documents.
But how we design these documents to be read online, according to Bricklin, will be as important as the distribution itself. Just tossing up page after page of a long document online will do little to promote the public's understanding of the issues these documents detail.
A new medium, says Bricklin, requires a new way of writing. Bricklin comes by his interest in words honestly. Both his grandfather and his father were printers. And Bricklin's first job out of university was working with newspapers in the field of computerized typesetting.
Bricklin went on to create one of the first spreadsheet programs, VisiCalc, and develop leading edge software for word-processing programs and pen computers. These days, Bricklin turns his attention to the World Wide Web. His software company, Trellix, has developed an application that enables businesses to create, maintain, and update content for corporate intranets.
But in Bricklin's eyes, the same lessons that he has learned about developing applications for intranets in the business world apply to the distribution of all online documents. For Bricklin, creating readable online documents includes the use of sidebars, frames, lots of bulleted lists and short summaries. He is also a fan of the hard-news style of headlines and strong opening sentences. "It's important to choose the right amount of summary for your project. What we're finding in our research is that more people, particularly researchers, are reading on screen. No matter how much documentation you give them, they are still going to skim. The newspaper writing style, with its inverted pyramid format, works on the idea that people skim the newspaper to find the stories they want to read."
For Bricklin, the Starr report was a classic example of the old method of tossing documents up online in a format that was difficult to use.
"Thousands of people downloaded that document, but it was very hard to read. We thought people could use a more readable version, so we decided to accept it as a challenge and create one - one that didn't use a lot of graphics, one where the numerous footnotes involved in the Starr report were directly connected to the sections of the report to which they referred."
You can see the results of Bricklin's ideas at work on the Starr report at www.gooddocuments.com/icreport/. It's a great example of how summaries, links, frames, and other online navigation techniques can be used to create a document that is much more useful for any reader. "The most important lesson we've learned in all our research is that you have to write, or at least organize, for the media in which you are working," Bricklin says. "Like all writing, the more you write, the better writer you'll become. And online reading happens, and we need to learn to deal with that."
* Tom Regan is the associate editor of The Christian Science Monitor's Electronic Edition. You can e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org