Book title: Hypertext and Hypermedia

Academic Press, 1990, ISBN 0-12-518410-7

Andrew Dillon

This item is not the definitive copy. Please use the following citation when referencing this material: Dillon, A. (1991) A review of Nielsen - Hypertext and Hypermedia. Ergonomics, 34(9), 1243-1245.

Hypertext or hypermedia are the terms used to describe the electronic presentation of information as a set of loosely structured, linked nodes, a deceptively simple idea that is in danger of becoming the most hyped concept in contemporary computing. Having spawned numerous conferences where believers preach about the future (always the future!) of information usage or present papers lauding the imminent liberation of human thought from the supposedly narrow constraints of the paper medium, it is perhaps surprising then that so few books have appeared on the subject. The present volume is one of the first texts that is not a product manual, collection of conference papers or book of readings. Rarer still, it sets out to consider hypertext at least partly in an ergonomic light.

Jakob Nielsen is a well-known computer scientist with a commendable interest in human factors who has published widely on hypertext despite its relatively short history. Indeed, for those particularly familiar with his work in this area there is a disappointing lack of anything very new in the book. However, as an introductory text to the issues underlying hypertext and its successful use, many readers should find this a useful starting point.

The book contains 12 chapters covering such topics as the history of hypertext, its applications, major systems, writing hypertext, likely future developments as well as specific human factors issues such as hypertext usability and navigating large information spaces. Chapter 2, An Example Hypertext provides a simple walkthrough a typical hypertext, highlighting features and attributes of the technology that make it such an area of interest (readers can even obtain a free copy of that hypertext via email). From a technical point of view the book covers hardware support for hypertext and the process of converting existing text to hypertext. One extremely useful aspect is the inclusion of an annotated bibliography in which the author gives a short critical review of each reference in this rapidly expanding literature, allowing readers to better judge it’s worth. A second appendix provides a list of products, vendors and relevant contact addresses. All in all then the book covers everything that one assumes is important to readers interested in this topic.

Limitations exist in the form of coverage which tends to breadth rather than depth. The definition of hypertext offered in chapter 1 is more a collection of examples of what hypertext is not ( e.g., it’s not a just a database and it’s not just a windowing system etc.) rather than a clear statement of what it is. The chapter on hypertext usability states several high level criteria for assessing usability of computer systems (e.g., it should be easy to learn, pleasurable to use etc.) before providing very general discussions of these aspects in relation to hypertext and offering a superficial summary of the limited but burgeoning empirical work in the area. The chapter on writing similarly avoids detailed analysis of the text creation process, preferring to highlight potential problems and offering general advice (e.g., write shorter nodes of information than you would with paper). The net result is that the book raises all the appropriate issues but does not attempt detailed examination of any of them, in many ways an acceptable compromise for a book seeking to help readers understand the likely importance of this technology.

Of course the great irony of hypertext, and one that is alluded to by many authors including Nielsen, is that coverage and communication of the ideas behind it are invariably presented on paper. Indeed the present author starts the text with the statement “Why is this a book?” and one recognises immediately that this is the crucial question, especially as he outlines the sequence of events underlying the present book’s creation (email, word processor, camera-ready copy etc.) that involved paper only at the point where the message is to be made accessible to the general reader.

The answer Nielsen provides is that we are currently constrained by technology which makes it difficult for us to read electronic text away from our desktops or using systems different than that with which it was created. While these points are valid, I would have been happier to see some concession to the facts that generally, people still prefer paper, find it easier to use and read faster or more accurately with it. After all these are the crucial human issues. To be fair, the author does cite these objections in the text but somehow they appear played down, seen as temporary problems soon to be overcome with technical developments and the erosion of user resistance. Unfortunately, some of us don’t see it quite the same way.

Like many computer scientists, the author is a self-confessed hypertext enthusiast and subscribes to the point of view that hypertext is a liberating technology. Put simply, the basic premise of this viewpoint is that traditional paper texts are sequential or linear and must be read in this manner. Hypertext on the other hand, by operating on the “more natural” basis of association frees readers to follow ideas as inclination and need take them. Thus we find statements in the book such as:

“All traditional text ....is sequential, meaning that there is a single linear sequence defining the order in which it is to be read. First you read page one. Then you read page two. Then you read page three.....Whereas hypertext is nonsequential; there is no single order in which the text is to be read” (p.1).

Acceptance of this leads the author to conclude that when reading hypertext:

“users learn the facts that are relevant for their purpose without having to learn or go through non-relevant material” (p 146) which they presumably must do with paper and therefore, people will “actually prefer using the hypertext system” (p.147).

The main problem with this view, which is virtually unchallenged in hypertext circles, is that it rests on a simplistic and to my mind, incorrect view of paper documents and their usage. Paper is not necessarily sequential and is definitely not always read in the manner outlined in the above quote. Skilled readers are far more prone to selecting and jumping through paper texts than most hypertext advocates assume and often rely on texts’ conventional structures to predict contents and recall details or locations. By accepting the naive view of linear constraints with paper many computer scientists really believe such sweeping claims as “people learn faster with hypertext” or users “prefer hypertext”; who wouldn’t prefer it if every time you picked up a book or a newspaper you were forced to start reading at the beginning? But you aren’t and you don’t!. Paper is a presentation medium par excellence and the weight of evidence to date does not support the rather staggering claims being made for this new technology. Refusal to buy into this liberation philosophy means that much of what I read on the subject leaves me underwhelmed or tickled pink. This is not any one author’s fault, it is more of a collective myopia but it doesn’t help to lessen the hype and the present text, though far more realistic than some material, is written by someone who, it appears, ultimately believes the evidence of others’ convictions.

My only other criticism, which is particular to this text rather than the general literature it covers is the lack of theoretical perspective in the book. Much of the interest in hypertext lies at the psychological rather than computer science end, i.e., how do people interact with information sources, how do we navigate through information space?. The author treats such questions in a relatively cut and dried fashion, throwing in psychological terms unconvincingly and basically asking (and answering) can people do these things with hypertext not how do they do them and how could hypertext help. Maybe it’s the author’s preference for pragmatic relevance rather than theoretical insight but I get little feeling for the readers or users of hypertext in this approach. They are certainly mentioned frequently but the image of them presented here is not particularly human. The book gives a set of statements about hypertext but it doesn’t pull them together into a sufficiently cohesive view of the reading process and human-computer interaction. However, perhaps I’m asking for too much from one book so early in the history of the field.

In sum, the book offers a useful introduction to anyone who has heard the term mentioned but doesn’t have a clue what hypertext is or what it might mean for them. Reading this text will not make them an expert but that is not its intention. It tells you clearly where hypertext came from, where it is going and what the crucial issues are. As a parting shot it is interesting to note that reading this text brought home to me one annoying attribute of paper that hypertext can easily resolve: the placement of pictures or figures over the page from their within-text reference, chapter 2 is full of these. Maybe electronic text has a future after all!