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Developer Relations Group
March 27, 1997
"My mind to your mind. My thoughts to your thoughts."
The Web has suddenly become one of the most popular methods for distributing electronic documents. And I expect it may not be long before I could remove the "electronic" qualifier.
But what exactly is a document?
What's a Doc, Mr. Spock?
A document is an imperfect attempt at a Vulcan Mind Meld. For those of you unfamiliar with the internationally celebrated television show and films known as Star Trek (yeah, right), during a Vulcan Mind meld, the character Spock or another Vulcan creates a temporary psychic link with someone else. During the link, the thoughts and experiences of the two individuals freely pass between them. Some deep and poignant question is usually at stake, and the best way to get the information across is via this direct linkup between the "owner" of the information, and the "recipient." Sounds like client-server data processing in the 24th century.
When you prepare a "document," you are essentially attempting to pass all necessary information relating to a specific concept from your mind to someone else's. This can take the form of a shopping list, a business report, a painting, even a computer application. The "quality" of the transmission is determined by how much of the information that you are trying to get across arrives at the other end intact, and how closely it represents what you were trying to say. But it is also important to make sure that the information you related was in fact being wanted and needed by the target audience.
Who, What, Where
For a document, such as a business card, the issues involved in such a transmission are fairly straightforward. Providing information on who you are, your job title, your business, and a few different contact methods is all that is generally expected. Adding some pretty graphics such as a company logo can help. Once I received a business card from a microfiche company.The card was itself a piece of microfiche, with the firm's most recent annual report reproduced across the bottom. While definitely a "gimmick," it was also a decent attempt at providing additional information a reader might want, though admittedly available only to someone with a microfiche reader.
Rarely will the ideas you are trying to express be as simple as a business card. Often, when you truly understand what you are trying to say, you will find that it consists of complex concepts, expectations of background knowledge, and even an emotional investment to convey your point. Some people might try to convince you that you should be able to distill your information down to a simple black and white statement of the facts and objectives, but such a message would deny the importance of emotion in the decision-making process.
Second that Emotion
Think back to the Vulcan Mind Meld. If you've ever seen this done on Star Trek, you've also seen that it is almost always an emotionally involved scene. Now think back to your school days, the classes and teachers from which you learned the most. Chances are good that they weren't the ones that presenting simple clinical statements on the lessons. The classes I learned the most from were the ones in which I could easily see the emotional investment the teacher had in the subject. While simple words might have provided the necessary information, that investment in presenting the information allowed me to connect with why the teacher felt it was important. A clinical approach might provide the "What" of the information you want to express; but without somehow adding an emotional spark, you fail to convey the "Why."
Since Vulcan Mind Melds don't really exist, on the Web we are unfortunately stuck with second-rate solutions for expressing our ideas. HTML 2.0 added structure to what otherwise would have been just a text file, which is fine for simple thoughts and ideas. HTML 3.2 adds more layout, imaging, and color concepts to our documents, allowing us to hint at some of the emotional concepts behind more complex information. As Web-page technology evolves, the richness of the document environment continues to do so, too. It is by properly leveraging some of these advanced capabilities that we can learn to express ourselves better on the Web.
You'll Love Her Page; It's Got a Great Personality
In my last column, I cautioned against overuse of "cool" tags and extensions. I stand by that. I am not proposing you start adding gratuitous graphics, controls, sounds, or font mangling to your pages. Instead, I encourage you to understand what you are trying to say before you begin to design your pages.
This means not only understanding your message, but your audience as well. Appropriate "white space" throughout your Web pages can assist the reader in following your concepts. Choosing a proper background color can help set the stage for your information. The addition of graphics can add emphasis or expression to key points. Well-chosen font selection can indicate a change of "voice" or position.
Spending time on how you present your message not only makes it easier to understand, but indicates to your readers how important the message is to you—and that it might be worth their time to read. All of this helps create a "personality" for your site. A visual embodiment of you, the speaker, as the reader browses through your information. Days later, when the reader thinks back to your site, he will remember first the visual impression it made on him.
Add a Soupçon of Anticipation
As you work on the presentation of your message, don't lose sight of your audience. Why might they come to you? What are they trying to find out? Regardless of how dynamic Web sites currently are, they still represent just the information that the owner is prepared to present. It is more like watching a cooking show on television than attending a cooking class in which the student can interrupt and ask a question. This means that the amount and type of information you present need to anticipate the questions your audience might want answered. Julia Child is an accomplished chef, and yet when talking to distinguished guest chefs on her current television show, she asks innocent questions, the kind to which she most certainly already knows the answers.
Step Back and Ask
Ask yourself the same kind of innocent questions. Allow your readers to follow you through the solutions at various experience levels. Most importantly, provide an easily discoverable mechanism to allow your audience to tell you who they are, and what they are trying to find out about you.
Throughout the process of site development, it is important for us not to lose track of "what" we are trying to say, but we also need to keep in mind "why" we're saying it, and to "whom."
Step back occasionally and ask yourself what information people might want when they come to your site. Then determine the best way to provide it. And keep in mind that the way most people "locate" such information is by using Web search engines.
When good sites aren't
I once found myself researching issues related to colors and color names.
It seemed like a good bit of information to have on hand would be the list of colors included in each box of Crayola˜ Crayons. I took a random stab at locating this information. The obvious starting spot was http://www.crayola.com/.
The Crayola Crayon site is reasonably well executed. It has nice clean images, and, while a little heavy on the graphics (the home page has almost 100K of graphics, and the pages don't work in non-graphic mode), the pages seemed to load reasonably well.
On the site I could tour the Craylola factory, see the processing steps for making Crayons and markers, take a trivia quiz, even learn how to remove Crayon stains from various surfaces and fabrics.
But nowhere on the site could I find a listing of the company's Crayons by name of color. It seems to me such an obvious piece of information, but I expect the people designing the site were too close to it.
And so their site turns into glitzy marketing, rather than something truly useful. This is a common danger many sites fall into.
Here's my Web card
Think of your site as a business card.
An example: F.H. Steinbarts. The Web site for a wine and brewing supplies firm, its one page has clean, straightforward information. The graphics could be crisper, and the little Java scroller at the bottom is annoying, but as a business-card site, it works fine. You know who the company is, what it sells, where it is located, and how to contact it.
You know almost immediately if this company is one you want to contact.
Because of this page, I "discovered" this company, and, after talking with one of its sales reps, found it can help me obtain a product I was looking for.
The next steps for such a site depend on how "involved" with the Internet the company wants to become, and how much money it will invest. Often, the slow and gentle approach is a good start.
Robert Hess is an evangelist in Microsoft's Developer Relations Group. Fortunately for all of us, his opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Microsoft.