A recent article in the Society for Technical Communications' Intercom magazine proclaimed that indexing is on the rise (Seth Maislin, "The Indexing Revival," February, 2005), and that there is a renaissance of work in the field. But at the WritersUA March Conference, Microsoft's Longhorn features session declared that Longhorn's Help system will not contain an index, because "no one uses it." Then, to add to the discussion, at that same conference Apple revealed that their next help engine will include synonym rings and will add a form of indexing back into their display. Who's right? Who's correctly predicting the trends?
Indexing online information is a key skill for online information developers, yet not much information exists on how to do it right. After defining online indexing and briefly presenting the research the authors were involved in, the article provides all the key ingredients for creating a good, searchbased online index.
The American Society of Indexers identifies criteria for measuring a great index. An index is not an inverted table of contents, nor is it a simple listing of where certain terms appear in a document. An index consists of a 'compiled list of topics covered in the work, prepared with the reader’s needs in mind.'
This NISO Technical Report provides expert guidance on designing indexes for every kind of document. Coverage includes automatic indexing and indexing based on intellectual analysis and the use of controlled vocabularies. A comprehensive glossary of indexing terms is provided and recommended introductory text for print and back-of-the-book indexes, database indexes, computer produced indexes, and electronic search indexes are given.
The Microsoft Word Help suggests that you can automatically generate an index. Sorry, but you can't (the 'result' looks like an index, but the reader can't use it). You can automatically mark index entries: however, the amount of work required to edit the result into a usable index is usually double the effort required to manually mark the index entries one-by-one.
Editing an index involves much more than just proofreading and checking for correct page number references. An experienced index editor will clarify and refine categories; combine, add, or delete subentries; and create meaningful cross-references. Knowing what flaws to look for in an index and understanding how to correct them will help you significantly improve the usability of your document (whether paper or electronic) and make it easier for your readers to locate quickly the relevant information they need.
An index is an important navigation device in documentation, especially in print. It helps users to quickly find key terms, concepts, functions, and instructions. In this post, I share my best advice about building an index.
INDEX-NW is an unmoderated email list for the discussion of topics relevant to experienced or aspiring indexers, index users, and those who publish indexed materials in the Pacific Northwest. It provides a forum for discussing practical, theoretical, and philosophical issues and for exchanging advice, information, ideas, and resources of interest to its intended audience.
With such a considerable portion of our collective mindshare devoted to information management products these days, it's no wonder that you're lost in terminology and technology. And it's no wonder that so many of us are confused.
Indexing a software manual is not very different from indexing any other manual. As a simple rule, make sure you index all of the software features: screens, windows, fields, options and commands. Index system errors and warnings if applicable. Use cross-references to direct the reader to the term used in the manual if it differs from the generally-used jargon.
Acronyms and initialisms pepper the workplace conversation in many technical and scientific environments. If you’re new to the organization or industry, the many unknown acronyms can be a real barrier to comprehending anything at all. Published books and technical documentation often spell out the full term when first used and then employ the acronym only. As indexers we need to serve both the “newbies,” who find the acronyms confusing, and the “old hands,” who dream only in acronyms.
To deal with AOL's size, I contracted others to help me with 'the dirty work' of typing search words in the database records. At the height of the project, four people worked in a large room at open desks. Although I was in charge of the project, most of the nitty gritty was accomplished by two other individuals. Following my lead, they reviewed each of the AOL pages, decided the important concepts of each area, and chose representative vocabulary. With their assistance and the involvement of several Songline employ- ees, the project took under one year, from the initial planning stages through testing, review, and summary. In theory, then, AOL's size could be conquered by allowing enough time to complete the project and contracting enough indexers to do the work.
DITA is useful for helping writers create small units of organized information that can be used in multiple contexts. Of course, the reader's problem then becomes locating the information they want in a quick, reasonable timeframe. Although DITA provides enough metadata to simplify searching, or even to present information the reader needs based on a profile, there are some media that cannot make use of those facilities. To bridge that gap, you can use the tried and true index.
An index is a systematic arrangement of entries designed to enable users to locate information in a document. Entries consist of important names, concepts, and terms. Entries are ordered differently than in the text and are not an outline of the text. A good index reflects the text accurately and anticipates the reader's viewpoint.
The frazzled reader scans your text, anxiously looking for the key word or phrase that will unravel the mystery of a less-than-helpful graphical user interface. Reaching for coffee that immediately slops onto the keyboard, the reader then resorts to desperate measures and opens your index. A quick scan of the entries confirms the reader's worst fears. The index is no help. The reader gives up, calls the Technical Support Help Desk, and relegates your carefully crafted documentation to the floor next to the recycle bin. The above scenario shows that a usable index is a key documentation component that too often receives little or no thought on the part of the writer.
Giving your readers a quality index takes a careful consideration of the tools, time frame, workgroup process, and results you plan for the piece. Planning for the index must start at the beginning of the project, in order to have the essential processes clear to all involved As the documentation process itself becomes more complex, trying to meet different needs in different environments, so does indexing. As print-based documentation moves to online, the index or keywords becomes critical to your users. In this session, participants will learn what kinds of tools are available for indexing, the benefits of each, what the stages of indexing are, and the amount of time to allow for each.
Online indexing has great potential as a tool for information retrieval, although current online indexes are not always well used. Research and experience indicate that online indexing can be most effective if it is approached as a combination of traditional indexing and using computer search capabilities. Typical search facilities have great power but tend to rely on complex algorithms or else retrieve more information than users can effectively sort through. Traditional indexing techniques serve as a filter for concepts to limit searches to information that users will actually find valuable. To take full advantage of search facilities, online indexes can be designed with a flat (nonhierarchical) structure in which each index entry is clearly worded and makes use of keywords from the subject matter. Indexers can include additional keywords as synonyms that point to the relevant index entries. When indexers take advantage of these concepts and when index users clearly understand what to expect from online indexes, the the indexes become an extremely powerful retrieval medium.