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Online content and narrative: choose your own adventure

Happy new year! A change of years puts us in a reflective mood. We ponder the year we have just left behind; and we think about the one that’s just started. We get nostalgic; and we try to predict the future. It’s all about personal narrative.

Narrative…now there’s a good topic. (seamless link, John…)

If you were a teenager in the 1980s you’ll probably remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books.

They were little paperback adventure stories. What made them interesting was that throughout the book, the reader had to make decisions:

If you decide to start back home, turn to page 4.
If you decide to wait, turn to page 5.

The books – though sometimes circular and sometimes very brief – were nonetheless interesting artefacts, and – in hindsight – successful precursors of hypertext.

The only thing disappointing about these books was that they ended. Concluding was inevitable, though. Being a printed book, there was only a certain number of pages available.

The End of Narrative?
You don’t have to spend long online to know that context-rich links are pure gold; they enable your search to continue, hopefully bringing you closer to the information you need.

Web pages with no useful links (either internal or external) are like a locked door on the Internet…or like the disappointing final page of a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

Having your online journey halted before you’re ready is disappointing; but not in the inevitable way of a 116-page kids’ book. The disappointment is felt more keenly because finding the ‘last page’ of an online trail is a betrayal of the promise – even the very purpose – of the World Wide Web.

So good site writers always strive to provide quality, contextual links wherever possible. If links are to another page on your site, great! Encouraging internal site exploration is good for business. If the links are external, that’s great too.

Block the Exits!
But many site managers are still worried that linking to external sites will drive away business. Why, they ask, would we provide arrows to the exit?

But every web user already knows where the exits are: the back button, the big X in the top-right corner, getting up to make a cup of tea, typing in the letters g-o-o-g-l-e, etc. And web users are very happy to use these exits if they think they’re otherwise wasting their time.

If You Love Something…
If your site hasn’t sated a user’s information needs, allow them to continue their journey. Allow them to create a useful online narrative. Tear down the wall. Users will be happier.

And they might even remember you later…

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Date: Friday, 1. January 2010 9:01
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Subject area: Being good, User focus
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