Ok, I know I just talked about this, but something happened to sharpen my understanding. Recently, a colleague was advocating, for a product she’s responsible for managing, that she was aware that people were “not used to reflowable text” And, frankly, that surprised me, but also explains the problems I’ve railed about in the past. Because reflowable text thinking is a key to moving beyond hardwired formatting to separating content from description.
As I’ve bemoaned before, the notion of people hardcoding the way a page looks drives me nuts. If you want to change anything (and I frequently find ways to improve things), it’s very hard to do. It takes a lot of fussing. And, yet, I have been aware of tools that are just for doing detailed page layout. This comes from the days of print, and having to handset the lead into a page to produce a newspaper and the like. But we’re not there anymore.
Too, I’ve had an advantage. I had the opportunity to learn to use a word processor very early on. I had vi, the Unix visual text editor to write with, allowing editing, and LaTex to specify visual details, while I was a college student (I was glad to abandon my typewriter!). Then, I got a Mac II and Microsoft Word (2.0) to write my PhD thesis. This was a boon, because I could write, and define things like margins and what headings look like. And, automagically, my paper came out from the printer (ultimately, I had to tweak a few things) ready to pass the library lady with her ruler.
The point was that I was not fussing about how each page looked, I was instead specifying things like:
- that a top level header required a page break beforehand (e.g. starting a new chapter),
- hat the next level header was left justified,
- that a heading should always be printed with the next paragraph or line of text,
- and so on.
And when it was printed, it looked right. If I changed paper size, or margins, or what have you, it adapted.
That’s separating out what I’m saying from how it behaves across screens, devices, printers, etc. And that was useful for the web, mobile, and more. It’s responsive design. And, it’s the key to moving our content and experiences forward.
It’s about describing behaviors, instead of hand-coding them. And having them refer to centralized descriptions. Which is a lot like coding, having new objects inherit the properties of their predecessors. And, it’s about Web 3.0, the semantic web.
Look, this has seemed to be something not all folks seem to be able to get their mind around. And, I hope that’s not true, that it’s learnable. Because we have to come to grips with this. It’s already happening across the business in pretty much every other area. We can’t lag; we need reflowable text thinking, because our audience needs flexible content. When we can gain considerable power at the expense of some rethinking, that’s a fair tradeoff, in my mind. I welcome your thoughts.