Links are a vital component of every technical documentation. They ease navigation within documents and quickly lead users to the information they are looking for. To utilize links effectively, it is imperative to develop a systematic link concept already when planning the technical documentation – otherwise links can have a reverse effect.
A well-conceived link concept makes work easier for technical editors as well. Most notably if you have a lot of information classes, the linking of content can easily become confusing.
Prerequisites for a link concept
Before creating a link concept or an editorial guide, hierarchies and relations between information classes have to be defined. Therefore, every planned text has to be assigned to an information class, such as a step-by-step instruction, a function description or a safety note. The information classes are structured hierarchically to provide order and a consistent structure. Which information classes have to be built on one another, which relations are allowed or prohibited? This kind of preliminary work should be completed before a content management system is implemented or before a draft of the technical documentation is created in a word processor.
Developing a link concept
With a concept for information classes done it is time to create a link concept: Between which kinds of information classes is it mandatory, allowed or prohibited to set links? In doing so, the link concept does not have to mirror the structure of the information classes. On the contrary, links can be also be set between information classes which are prohibited to follow each other according to the information class concept. Thus, a mandatory link could lead from an extensive function description to a step-by-step instruction.
Image: Link concept. The arrows in orange show the hierarchy between the information classes. The green arrows show the link convention that forms the link concept.
Links can also be very helpful in structuring long and extensive documents. Large-scale documents can be split into several smaller documents with links between one another. This way of using links is a practical aid to shape content according to consistent rules.
Moreover, the link concept should lay down both layout and usability. Links should always stand out from the standard text, so that users can easily recognize them. This includes all output formats, such as documentation for mobile devices. Finally, the link concept should provide quality-ensuring editorial processes.
Benefits of a link concept
Even if no complex information class system is necessary for the documentation, there should still be a link concept embedded in the style guide. Only then will different documents be linked sensibly and consistently. A link concept will be an important factor for users not only to find information quickly and easily but also to get valuable additional information.
So, it is in the planning stage of the technical documentation that editors have to consider that links have to be set within the framework of a link concept and that an adequate quality assurance has to be conducted. Only that way you can guarantee that links fulfill their function within the documentation and be as user-friendly as possible.