I don’t know if this is an insight others will find impressive, but when I heard it, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Maybe it’s because I wrote software documentation for a short time, and know from both the user and writer perspectives just how grim and uninspiring software documentation can be.

Recently, a speaker who is an avid blogger in Spain, Dr. Luis Parera, made a comment that hit me in just the right way. Specifically, he noted that the Internet — arguably the greatest convergence of computing interfaces, computing power, diverse users, and networked information in history — has no user manual. Hundreds of millions of users, and no user manual! No Web site publishes a user manual, no user documentation team distributes a user-guide with each installation of Firefox or IE. O’Reilly’s books like this are out of print. There is no documentation for users of the Web. They simply use it.

(And don’t tell me that Help is documentation of the Web. I’m sorry, but I think help files are helpless.)

So how could this be? I think there are various reasons (e.g., standards bodies have done a great job sorting out the backend, the adoption of WYSIWYG was critical), but one reason overrides these in my mind: People can use common metaphors online — both conceptual metaphors like “back” and “forward,” but also normal metaphors like “home” and “address” and “page.” In fact, metaphors are so prevalent that being online is like playing a video game.

In fact, online has spawned intramural metaphors. What are you talking about? Let Rich Skrenta explain:

[Users] instantly recognize — within 100 milliseconds — which class of site a page belongs to — search result, retail browse, blog, newspaper, spam site, message board, etc. And if they don’t recognize what kind of page they’re on, they generally give up and hit the back button.

So, if your news site doesn’t look like a news site, you aren’t in the right metaphorical/categorical space. The same for journal sites, book sites, commerce sites, etc. You have to match the intramural metaphors, both in specifics and in aggregate. You will be ineffective if you don’t.

Ultimately, it’s the Web’s ability to present useful visual and spatial metaphors (pictures, icons, concepts, hierarchies, maps) that has made it so simple a child can grasp it. Even the WYSIWYG interface is chock full of metaphors (desktop, folder, link). And I think that’s why it all works in a remarkable way. The brain works in metaphors. No manual is required.

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.