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A theory of presentation and its implications for the design of online technical documentation

©1997 Detlev Fischer, Coventry University, VIDe (Visual and Information Design) centre

For years, this PhD thesis was hosted online at the site of Kingston University, UK. Since I discovered recently that it has been removed, I have decided to put it up here, without changes. Only the invalid URLs to other sites (that is, nearly all of them) have been removed.

Looking back, I now have some concerns about the style of theorizing in the vein of the grounded theory approach, the definition of a self-contained terminology with blissful disregard of dominant usage, and the emphasis on developing the entire theory bottom-up, using external references mainly to satisfy the research protocol. I also feel that the practical conclusions, while they still appear valid to me, are rather general and may not be that helpful for designers of online information. But judge for yourselves.

General Chapters Appendices


This study proposes a theory of presentation and discusses its implications for the design of online technical documentation. The theory is based on an investigation of how professional service engineers use technical documents relating to the oil system of a commercial aircraft engine. A second source was the design and evaluation of a novel hypermedia document system, the cinegram, which constitutes the practical part of the submission. The cinegram prototype uses animated diagrams and other media to show processes within an aircraft engine’s oil system.

Presentation is defined as the activity of users who present, to themselves and to others, their understanding of a particular problem through the use of various resources such as technical manuals, diagrams, or conversations. These resources may exist already for display through users’ navigation, or they are articulated during presentation, for example, as questions, comments, to-do lists, sketches, or gestures. The study shows the critical importance of confluence between navigated and articulated resources during presentation, for example, when users compare documents or view a document while receiving a telephone comment.

The study applies the theory of presentation to the design of online technical documentation. The importance of resource confluence suggests the optimisation of display content and an architecture that puts other important resources in close reach. Optimisation often cuts across the boundaries enshrined in standard document sets. For example, a document system can allow links between standard manuals and emergent comments articulated by users.

The theory has implications for the design of scheduled resources such as animation included in node-based systems. The core of the design problem is to find ways to reduce the agency of the schedule. Agency means that the schedule paces the navigation of the resource according to designers' predictions of the utility of its content for the average user. In contrast, users’ presentation needs and navigational activities usually respond to unpredictable developments in the reference domain. The designer can employ techniques which reduce the schedule's agency and turn it into a subordinate resource for users' emergent presentation. Most important are the conceptual segmentation of the schedule, and a schedule control panel allowing arbitrary access to any segment. The study shows that decisions regarding segment boundaries and names can have a profound effect on users' understanding or misunderstandig of the schedule's content.

The conclusion relates the theory of presentation to choices of research design, and points out fruitful areas for further research into online documentation.

Last update: 08 November 2007 | Impressum—Imprint