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
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
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?