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January 6, 2015

Beneath the page: learning to see structure

We hear a lot about the learning curve for structured authoring, but what does that really mean?

Experienced knitters learn to read the work—they can look at a knitted object and map the knitted version to a written or charted pattern. This skill is extremely helpful in locating pattern mistakes. Beginning knitters usually can’t step outside their immediate concerns of needles, yarn, and unfamiliar motions.

Spotting a dropped stitch is easier for experienced knitters.

Reading the work // flickr: kibbles_bits

Similarly, listening to kids talk about video games is enlightening. They dissect the game, discuss the way a particular challenge is constructed, and argue about whether the various enemies are too easy or too hard. They also have an eye for game mechanics and game flow. More casual gamers (me) struggle just to figure out how to make the sword work.

Bloom’s (revised) taxonomy provides a general framework for cognitive learning:

  • Remember
  • Understand
  • Apply
  • Analyze
  • Evaluate
  • Create

You have to master the basics (remember, understand, and apply) before you can move up to the more sophisticated levels. For knitters, the analysis level is the ability to read the work. (Designing patterns is the “create” level.)

For structured content, we have a similar set of learning requirements:

  • Remember—learn basic ideas, such as elements, attributes, and hierarchy.
  • Understand—comprehend structured authoring concepts.
  • Apply—use elements and attributes as needed.
  • Analyze—look at a page (print or web) and understand how that page is constructed with elements and metadata.
  • Evaluate—assess whether a page is structured properly or develop best practices for using an existing tag set with unstructured content.
  • Create—develop your own set of elements and attributes to describe content (information architecture).

And here is the crux of the structured authoring challenge:

Structured documents require authors to gain a deeper understanding of their documents than unstructured documents. This is true even if the editing software hides elements and attributes from the author.

Just as moving from a typewriter to a word processor required additional skills, moving from a word processor to a structured document requires new skills. The software will get better and easier over time, but the cognitive leap required is permanent.