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Every Page is Page One

By Mark Baker


Every Page is Page One is an approach to information design and information architecture that recognizes that readers may enter a content set at any point, and so ensure that every page in the content set can function as page one for the reader.

In a bottom-up information architecture every page is a potential entry point and also a hub of its local space within the content set. A page is therefore not an end point, as it is in a top-down information architecture, but a node in a network that the reader can navigate in any order they please. This meas that the reader can arrive at any page in the content set without any prior context being established. Each page must therefore work as page one for the reader. This is true even if the reader has visited several pages in the content set, since it is impossible to anticipate which pages, and in which order, the reader will have read those pages.

Even in a top-down information architecture, however, it cannot be assumed that the reader will read in the prescribed order. (Nor does top-down architecture always imply a reading order -- it may be based on categorization rather than a curriculum.) The way in which the reader reads is driven by their background, habits, and immediate needs. Studies show that readers often skip around in material that was written to be read linearly (and indeed, we provide indexes to help them do so). Given this, unless we are confident that the reader will actually read our content in linear order, we should still treat every page as page one, even in a top-down information architecture.

Every Page is Page One is therefore an information design style based on creating small units of content (topics) that meet individual needs for the reader and that don't depend on being read in a particular order. In my book, Every Page is Page One: Topic-based Writing for Technical Communication and the Web, I lay out seven design principles for Every Page is Page One topics:

  1. Self-contained - An Every Page is Page One topic is self contained. It contains the content needed to fulfil its purpose for its intended audience and does not have linear dependencies on other topics. That is, there is no previous or next topic, and no parent or child topics. It may, however, link to topics that provide supporting or ancillary material.

  2. Specific and limited purpose - An Every Page is Page One topic serves a specific and limited purpose. This purpose is not necessarily the whole of any one user's task. Just as a traveller may need to take several vehicles to complete a complex individual journey, a reader may need to read several topics to complete a complex individual task. Just as a hotel shuttle may sever the specific and limited purpose of getting the traveller from the airport to the hotel, a topic should serve a specific and well defined purpose within the reader's overall task.

  3. Establish context - Because we don't know what the reader has read before reading this topic, we cannot assume that they understand the context of the topic. A topic cannot assume that its context is established by its place in a larger narrative or in a hierarchical organizational scheme. It must establish its context for itself. Establishing context is also an important part of enabling the reader who is offered this topic as one of a set of search results to quickly establish that it is the most relevant topic in the list for their needs. Finally, if the reader is not actually reading the right topic, setting context helps them identify this quickly. Context setting material should also provide links to help readers who are not in quite the right place get where they need to go.

  4. Conform to a consistent pattern - When you write a self contained topic with a specific and limited purpose, topics on the same subject naturally contain the same types of information, generally presented in the same way and in the same order. Thus all recipes follow the same pattern. While patterns naturally emerge over time, a process we can see in accelerated form in Wikipedia in particular, you can and should develop consistent topics patterns deliberatly for your content. Having a consistent and appropriate topic pattern helps to make the content more readable, easier for the browsing reader to identify, and easier for the writer to make complete and consistent.

  5. Stay on one level - Readers often need to change levels as they read. Some like to start with general principles and then see them illustrated by examples. Others like to start with examples and proceed to general principles later. Readers perusing specific goals often start with concrete instructions but find they need background information to understand how to the instructions apply to their task. Part of the curriculum design of a linear work is deciding when to change levels. However, when your are creating Every Page is Page One topics, that are designed to be accessed at random. the decision to change levels is firmly in the hands of the reader, not the writer. Writers should cede control over levels to the reader by keeping each topic they write on one level. Writers should also help readers to change levels when they need to by providing appropriate links.

  6. Assume the reader is qualified - For an Every Page is Page One topic to effectively serve a specific and limited purpose, it must have a specific vision of the reader in mind. A topic that attempted to server all possible readers would have to explain every word and idea that it mentioned, which would quickly become unwieldy. Instead, a topic should be written for the type of person who normally does this task. For example, a recipe is write for experienced cooks who know what terms like "whisk," "blanch," and "puree" mean. Explaining those terms in every recipe would make them inconvenient to use for the typical recipe user -- an experienced cook. Readers who are not qualified can find out how to whisk, blanch, or puree by searching or by following links in the recipe (if you provide such links).

  7. Link richly - Because an Every Page is Page One topic is a navigational hub for topics on related subjects, and because it uses links to help readers establish context, switche levels, and access background material, it should be richy linked to surrounding material.

In a structured writing environment such as SPFE, the rule that an EPPO topic should follow a consistent pattern is supported by the creating of specific topic types for each of the EPPO topic patterns you need for your content. Topic types follow topic patterns, but they can be much more specific than topics patterns, and enforce specific requirements and constraints to meet specific business needs.

The EPPO-simple schema set is specifically designed to support the development of highly specific EPPO topic types with minimal expense and overhead.