Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Content vs. Style - modern document editing

On ars technica,  Jeremy Reimer writes great thoughts on how we use word processing.

His description of modern document editing:

Go into any office today and you'll find people using Word to write documents. Some people still print them out and file them in big metal cabinets to be lost forever, but again this is simply an old habit, like a phantom itch on a severed limb. Instead of printing them, most people will email them to their boss or another coworker, who is then expected to download the email attachment and edit the document, then return it to them in the same manner. At some point the document is considered "finished", at which point it gets dropped off on a network share somewhere and is then summarily forgotten...
We use an application that was optimized to format printed documents in a world where printing is irrelevant, and our ‘document versioning’ is managed by the timestamps on the e-mail messages that we used to ‘collaborate’ on writing the document. What a mess, yet it's our perverse idea of what technology should be in the 21st century.

I'm sold on the idea of
  • online collaborative editing of documents
  • minimal formatting
  • continuous versioning
In other words I like wiki's. Some of my wiki docs are a decade old. I can find them. I can revert them back a decade if I want. I can rely on them in a DR event. I know who changed them & when they changed. I know what they contained before they were changed. They have bold, italics and headline fonts. I'm happy.

I'm even happier after I delete the hundred-odd useless fonts that come with my computers. I figure one or two each of serif, sans-serif and monospace is more than adequate. If I see more than a handful in the drop down font menu, I'm annoyed enough to start deleting them. We can thank Apple for that mess. The really cool people who bought early Mac’s needed to show off their GUI text editors by printing docs with six different font’s on a page (on a really crappy dot-matrix printer). It took them a while to figure out that it’s the content, not the style.

I'm really amused when archaic processes are updated by superficially skinning them over with technology.

True story, happens all the time:
  1. Senior manager with long title dictates memo to clerical staff.
  2. Clerical staff types memo in word processing software.
  3. Clerical staff prints memo.
  4. Senior manager signs memo.
  5. Clerical staff scans signed memo and saves as a PDF.
  6. Clerical staff e-mails memo to staff with subject line 'Please read attached memo from senior manager with long title'.
Someone isn't getting this whole technology thing. If the message from the senior manager with long title was really important, I'd have thought that it'd be in the opening paragraph of an e-mail from the senior manager with long title directly to the interested parties. If it were, I'd have read it instead of deleting it. It's the content that matters, not the container.

Equally amusing is the vast resources that we spend making web sites look pretty. It seems to me that the focus on a web site should be something like
  1. world class content
  2. decent writing style and readability
  3. make it look pretty
Instead we do something like:
  1. make it look pretty
  2. game the search engines
  3. optimize for ad revenue
  4. generate content (optional)
If you want me to read your content, don't waste your time making your site look pretty. I'll likely use a formatting tool to strip all that prettiness out anyway. That is – of course – if you have any interesting content amid all that prettiness.

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