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Defining the Alphabetic Matrix

Information usually comes to us in words. I call this web of words the "verbal or alphabetic matrix." This matrix has certain givens—things it does and ways it works. When we think and present information in words, we are adopting a one-at-a-time, single-viewpoint, nonsimultaneous, one-directional, nonglobal convention. Of course, it doesn't seem like a convention to us; it seems like we're just using words. But using words, those things come with the territory. The Web doesn't work that way. Its conventions are many-at-a-time, multiple-viewpoint, simultaneous, omnidirectional, and global.

Now, let me be clear about something: I am not advocating wordless communication, or suggesting substituting icons for words, or making light of the powerful cultural good of literacy. What I am suggesting is that we look at the alphabetic matrix, or words, as form. When our information content is presented in words, we have, for example, expected content to provide context. Typically we don't build into our verbal explanations the many sides of information. We don't show histories, comparisons, or longer trends. These provide context. The immediacy of content—for example, a down day in the markets—may tell us little or nothing about overall market strength or weakness. Context must be deliberately built into content; it doesn't come automatically. When it's not there, we become frustrated that we have too much content, searching within the content itself for solutions.

And context is just one of four basic comprehension drivers we need from information. Besides context, we need locational, relational, and navigational guidance as well. But words alone cannot manage these needs; they serve an entirely different purpose.

I call context, location, navigation, and relation the Four Drivers of Information Utility. To be truly useful, information should provide a context, locate the reader within the information, navigate the reader through the information, and provide meaningful relatedness for the content. When evaluating the merits of either a particular body of information or software designed to make the Web more comprehensible, consider these four drivers. Often you'll find that some or many of the drivers are missing. This is a basic cause of why we mistrust information or feel anxious that we can't manage or understand it.

Looked at in this way, putting such an expectation on the alphabetic matrix seems preposterous, like fretting that the casements of our houses don't also see fit to squeegee the windows occasionally.

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