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Everyone's a publisher
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By Clive Shepherd

A healthy intranet is one in which all members of an organisation are able to contribute to the content, to become publishers as well as readers. But preparing content for the screen is not the same as working on paper - it has its own rules, grammar, vocabulary, constraints and possibilities. In this article, Clive Shepherd argues that we will not extract anything like the maximum benefit from our intranets if we don’t teach our new breed of publishers the language of the web.

Contents
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History repeating itself
Working on screen is different
Creating quality intranet content
Training to be a publisher

History repeating itself
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Unfortunately, history has a habit of repeating itself. All too often we mislead ourselves into believing that if we supply our employees with the very best tools, that by some magic they will know, not only how to use them, but when, where and why. Did having a phone ever make anyone more able to deal effectively with customers? Did word processing software teach you how to lay out documents professionally? Did desk-top publishing software sound the death knells for the graphic design industry? And did PowerPoint ever guarantee a good presentation? Please add your own examples. I can hear the groans from here.

So, does a copy of Microsoft FrontPage (or whatever other package you may be using) provide you with the skills you need to become a web page author, a publisher for the screen? No, of course not.

You may say, ‘well, I’ve been taught how to use FrontPage, so I’m alright’. And it’s true that you’re at an advantage in that you know what buttons to press, how to insert a clip art animation, how to pepper the screen with fonts, how to select a bright coloured, textured background and even how to convert your 100-page Word document directly into HTML. In short, you have all the skills necessary to become a liability within your organisation, to kill the intranet stone dead and to maximise sales of aspirin.

Of course, when I say ‘you’, I don’t really mean you. After all, you’re a communications professional and you know that it takes a great deal of skill and experience to get your message across. I’m talking about the hundreds, if not thousands, of employees in your organisation who have suddenly added ‘on-line publisher’ to their job descriptions. Because, with the intranet, everyone’s a publisher.

As a starting point, here is a brief description of what are probably the most popular methods for business communication used today. Some of these are universally familiar, others recent arrivals on the scene, but for completeness and to ensure a common understanding, I have attempted to describe them all.
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Working on screen is different
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It might seem like common sense to say that there are important differences between paper and the screen as a medium. But then when was common sense ever common? After all, on the face of it, there are some striking similarities:

But go much beyond these and you are looking at two very different environments:

Do these physical differences between the two media really matter? You bet. They matter because if you ignore them and just copy your working practices from paper to the screen, then your documents will most likely be unreadable, disorientating, dull and so big that they jam up your network.

We also know, from research conducted by Sun Microsystems, that people behave differently when reading from a screen:

As a result, they recommend that web documents should contain only 50% as much content as their paper equivalents. They also recommend a completely different approach to designing for the screen.
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Creating quality intranet content
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There are many excellent usability guides on the World Wide Web. Fortunately they agree on more points than they disagree and their advice is typically both well-researched and down to earth. Having conducted a review of these guides, I was able to draw up my own list of web page design rules that apply well to intranets and are accessible to ordinary (non-professional) designers. Here they are then, my seven goals for intranet document design:

Creating content that counts
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Content is king. Of all the goals, content comes first, because without it, the rest are academic. 'Content that counts' is content that meets an identified audience need. It's accurate, up-to-date, relevant and on time. It's pitched at the right level and uses the right language for your audience. It contains all the necessary information, but only as much as is absolutely necessary.

On-line publishers need to know:

Making your pages easy to find
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However good your content, your efforts will have been entirely in vain if your audience can not find it. It may seem easy to bring readers and documents together, but on screen all content is invisible until you find it - unlike the more obvious physical presence of paper.

On-line publishers need to know:

Getting the reader’s attention
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You've got great content. The user has even found your page amongst all the available options on your intranet. What are your chances of holding the user long enough to read what you've got to say? Not great, if you can't grab their attention.

On-line publishers need to know:

Keeping the reader orientated
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Once you've got your reader's attention, you need to maintain it as they try to find the information they need. It is much easier on screen than it is on paper for a reader to become lost or disorientated. Fortunately, with good design these problems can be avoided.

On-line publishers need to know:

Ensuring readability
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We know that users find it slower to read off screen than off paper. For that reason we need to do all we can to make our web pages as readable as possible. Often designs that work well on paper are applied to the screen without consideration for the obvious differences. Worse, many web pages employ designs that would not work on any medium.

On-line publishers need to know:

Making your pages easy to skim
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Readers skim web pages rather than reading them word-for-word. Your job is not to work against this phenomenon but to make it easier. With a commercial web site, it is in your interest to hold the user at your site long enough to sell them something. On an intranet, you have a different goal: to provide the user with the information they want as quickly as possible. And to do this, the user must be able to move through your material easily.

On-line publishers need to know:

Providing connectivity
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Connections create the web. Without connections, the spider would have nowhere to travel. With a variety of links, you can provide the user with all the advantages of on-screen reading.

On-line publishers need to know:

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Training to be a publisher
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We now know what information has to be conveyed to on-line publishers, but what methods should we use to achieve the training? Well, there are three principal ways of meeting any training need – classroom training, self-study and on-job training. And all three have a part to play in providing on-line publishers with the skills they require:

Classroom training
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For the past eighteen months I have been using what are now called ‘traditional’ training methods to teach intranet content providers. Over a two-day course, we have provided a general introduction to the World Wide Web and intranets, skills in using the organisation’s chosen authoring software (typically Microsoft FrontPage) and a grounding in the design rules presented above. Classroom events have their pros and cons:

Pros
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Learners have the opportunity to interact directly with a subject matter expert
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Learners get away from job distractions
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Learners make contact with other intranet authors
Cons
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There can be a wide variability in the prior knowledge and experience of learners
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The training is not always available when and where it is needed

Self-study
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One of the prime advantages of an intranet is its ability to deliver training direct to the desktop. And what better way is there to demonstrate the benefits of the on-line medium than by using the technology itself? Materials are coming available now that provide a thorough grounding in the principles of on-line publishing in the form of short training modules for individual study at home or work (for further details contact the author).

Self-study has it own unique pros and cons:

Pros
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The learning is self-paced, so differences between learners are of less significance
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Learners can access the training at a time and place that suits their needs
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Self-study can deliver results speedily and inexpensively
Cons
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Some learners may feel the need for a greater level of direct support
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Learners are denied the opportunity of learning from each other
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Not everyone has the self-discipline required for self-study

On-job training
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Learning on the job is usually derided as being no more than ‘sitting next to Nellie’, which is unfair on many Nellies out there, some of whom are not such bad trainers. It is true that much on-job training is unstructured, inefficient and passes on bad habits, but well trained instructors, mentors and coaches provide an invaluable service in the workplace.

Pros
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Learners can obtain a ‘personal service’, where the training is tailored to meet their needs
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Learners obtain personalised feedback
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The learning takes place in a familiar environment
Cons
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One-to-one training is much more expensive than other methods
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Can be poorly structured
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Instructors need subject matter expertise and training skills

A three pronged approach
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Of course, many organisations make available a variety of training methods to suit the learning styles and preferences of individual learners. It is possible to envisage a course for on-line publishers that uses all three methods at different stages; what I call the ‘trident’, or three-pronged approach:

Whichever method you choose, there are significant benefits to be achieved from the skilled application of web page design principles. In two studies at Sun Microsystems, measured usability was improved by 159% and 124% by rewriting content to conform to best practice guidelines.

History does not have to repeat itself. We can do much more than provide our on-line publishers with the tools of the trade, we can help them to learn from the experience of the thousands of web page designers that have preceded them. We can provide them with the knowledge, understanding and skills needed to create quality intranet content.
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