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Forepaper by Julianne Chatelain
for Media Morphs the Messenger 98

What are "reader expectations" for HT fiction? If we're not sure what they are, how can we find out?

I run a usability lab where my company watches readers
experiencing NONfiction hypertext. Here are two high-
level generalizations from this experience that MAY be
applicable to fiction. (I need you fiction writers to tell me!)

Generalization #1. One contributing factor to whether readers have a "good experience" is whether aspects of the document _meet their expectations_...whatever those are...and usually that's based on _their_ previous experience...so it gets tricky!

As certain things have been found to "work" - and more and more writers discover and use them, then increasingly readers will expect them, in a virtuous cycle. I can imagine the first time somebody thought of the idea of _numbering the pages_ of a printed book. I'm sure it blew peoples' minds and pretty soon most everybody was doing it. There ARE equivalent "expected mechanisms" online, but in nonfiction anyway these are still chaotic and fluid.

Generalization #2. Another factor that contributes to a "good experience" is whether the reader feels a sense of control (over the hypertext) and empowerment (to choose her own path, bring her own "stuff" to the work etc.), not to mention that potency => fun => flow.

I can see that reader control might NOT be a good idea in the case of a "horror hypertext" where you *want* the reader to feel claustrophobic! But otherwise...

Usability testing of expectations around linking: some strategies

The gang at User Interface Engineering have written a lot lately about links testing. Basically, they ask folks to hover over the link they are thinking of traversing, without clicking. Then they ask some flavor of, "What do you think is going to happen?" or "Why did you choose this link?"

Then they let the folks click.

Then they ask, "Is this what you expected?" or some flavor of "How do you feel about this? better or worse, closer or farther from your goal"...?

I feel this technique is very applicable to fiction; if followed, it might help us figure out more about what the "expected mechanisms" are. Note that I DO feel that the SPECIFIC expected mechanisms" (we need a better word - but not rules! and not tropes!) VARY GREATLY between fiction and nonfiction. Have you noticed that readers become uncomfortable when they can't figure out which they're reading - that's one reason Walter Miller's work is so haunting- might it be partly because they don't know which set of expectations to use...?

My writing sample, Murmur of Water

This was done for the workshop - from a story idea I had, that I thought might lend itself to HT. The gist is that water molecules communicate with one another, and that what they are saying concerns us humans. Plus there's another hint (not well developed at all) that in addition to the specific "molecular murmurs" there might be another type of message in the relative order of the segments in each molecule. And of course I'm attempting to include both H2O and human points of view in some plausible way.

This is NOT yet reader-tested, at all. You'll be the first to read it. (Normally my stuff gets a lot of peer editing of various types.) Also, since it's only the second HT fiction I've written, although I did let the content dictate the structure, still...it feels like I've broken most of my usual rules (which all come from nonfiction). Nodes vary from way-long to way-short, and the navigation isn't regular, ugh, ugh. I hope this will be some of the "raw material" that we can use to try to sneak up on the reader expectation problem. In other words, if aspects of it bug me or you, exactly which aspects are those, and can I (you) tell the rest of us why?

If we can do that, maybe we'll have an "expectation" (or two) under the microscope.

How could we use "expected mechanisms" and "reader
control"? Ideally we'd put them in service of the wildest
hyperfictions we could devise....

When I want to read fiction, I want to read stuff that is as cutting edge as possible, in terms of both form and content. However, readers need to be able to GET that form and content in a way that doesn't blunt their experience with confusion and frustration. So, paradoxically, could we get good results by presenting outrageous form & content *via* some expected mechanisms, with reader control?

Or, are reader expectations already crippling to the group members as writers, and if so, what can be done about _that_? Or would it be true that as more readers become hyperliterate, and the "guidelines" become better known, we can have more fun deliberately breaking them?



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