Future documentation methods

Coming towards the end of the first year of my PhD and spending some time writing up my progress so far has led me to muse over the nature of report writing and ask the question: "surely there must be something better"...

Whilst the old adage "if it ain't broke don't fix it" might well apply here, I can't help but think that in the 21st century of immersive 3D virtual reality game playing, home 3D printing, and everyone carrying at least one state of the art electronic device about their person at all times, the concept of a paper report seems a little dated.

Here are a few examples to try to illustrate my point:
  • If there is a book and a film of the same story (or even a webpage and a youtube video) I will inevitably look at the the film first as it will convey the information to me far faster, and with less effort than reading the book.
  • If I have a choice between a photo or drawing of an object and a 3D model (either manipulable on screen or available to touch) I would get a better understanding of it from the 3D.
  • If I want information on a specific subject then I turn to Google/Wikipedia before I head off to the library.
I don't think these are examples of me being weird, they are simply illustrations of modern life making information more readily accessible. I'm sure you could argue over semantics ("the book contains more detail than the film", "library books have a more systematic review process than google hits", etc) but I hope you can accept my general point.

It therefore seems strange to me that a piece of work, perhaps costing thousands of pounds and many hundreds of man hours, should be presented in such a one dimensional format as a printed report. Here is a summary of what I see as the limitations to a printed report:
  1. One dimensionality - sure pictures might take this up to 2D, but all too often there aren't enough of these!
  2. Lack of user interaction - I can't search for a keyword, interactively link to source, or request further detail on a topic.
  3. Page constrained format - diagrams need to fit within a certain width, zooming in is limited by your eyes and printer resolution and page breaks artificially chop things up.
  4. Visual sense only - My other senses are put on hold, and only serve as a distraction.
So what have people done to improve on this? Here're a few examples that I can think of:
  • Video - a good recent example is this guys youtube CV
  • Hyperlinking - within sections of a document or out to other documents or web sites
  • Wiki formats - taking linking between sections to the extreme and making progress through the information less linear
  • 3D graphics - starting to be seen more in web pages, an excellent example is Google body
  • Powerpoint - a format often used in place of a standard document, it has many of the same issues, however users often seem to feel a little less constrained in terms of layout (perhaps this is only due to convention?)
  • Computable document format - this is a really exciting new development that reflects a lot of what I'm describing here
This last concept may or may not take off but I can see what they are hoping it will achieve. Some of its functionality can already be achieved in a pdf (details of how to achieve a lot of them through LaTeX are here) and almost all of it could also be done through HTML and javascript. An interesting discussion on this is given here. In fact the recently developed HTML5, in combination with javascript programming, offers a whole mass of interesting possibilities for the presentation of information. A step towards using HTML5 for what I'm talking about here is Tangle. This is a javascript library that supports the production of "reactive documents", allowing a reader to play with the content of the document.

Another alternative format with a lot of capability is Flash animation, these animations are typically web-based and often allow user interaction. Some basic options for creating these are given here. Although it is a very widely used format it requires a good level of experience to be able to code it. It has also faced quite widespread criticism recently, the most high profile of which came from Apple, and therefore there is speculation about whether HTML5 will ultimately replace it.

An obvious downside to these types of advanced documentation method is the length of time it takes to actually produce a document. Even when the author has a good knowledge of the specific tool they're using I think it's safe to say that nothing I've mentioned above will be as quick to produce as a simple text document. In fact the more advanced the documentation method - the longer it's likely to take to produce.

I'd love to be able to round off with a recommendation of the ultimate tool or combination of tools that can be used to create the perfect document, but as far as I've seen it doesn't yet exist. Lots of things seem to offer at least part of the solution I'm looking for, but none pull it all together into one great package. So instead I'll do two things, firstly I'll make a few plain points in summary/prediction, then I'll put together a set of use cases that I'd like to see available to the end user of my "ultimate document".


  • The plain printed word document is currently in the process of being overtaken by more electronic forms of documentation, inherently bringing a lot more potential to the document itself (hyperlinking and embedded video being two major ones). I would expect this to be a continuing trend (that may eventually even reach formal engineering reporting or even academia!).
  • There is the potential for this to go a lot further than the type of electronic documents seen today with the addition of 3D effects, audio tracks and similar.
  • HTML5 currently seems to offer the most potential for supporting this type of advanced documentation (although the computable document format may also be a candidate if it manages to pickup much of a user base).
  • Very little progress towards this end goal will be achieved until there are good tools for authoring the type of document I'm discussing here.
  • It seems highly likely that viewing of any document of this type will be through a web browser or similar.

Use cases - scenarios that I, as an end 'reader', would like to see supported in this ultimate document format.

  1. User managed detail level - I'd like to be able to look in more detail at sections I'm interested in or know little about, whilst invisibly skipping over the mundane or tedious stuff.
  2. Unconstrained document flow - If I want to read summary, then the contents, then the conclusions, then methods, it should be easy for me to work through that way.
  3. Recommended document flow - If I simply want to be guided through the document ensuring that I pick up all the important information then this should also be easy
  4. User interaction - Where more information could be made available then I should be able to access it. For example I should be able to zoom in on a waveform or rotate a 3D model.
  5. Multiple sense stimulation - practically this is likely to be limited to visual and audio currently (at least until we develop smell-o-vision and feel-o-vision...)
  6. Portability - I want this document to be viewable in as many places as possible, consequently it must be compact and easily openable on a variety of devices (laptops, mobiles, touchpads, e-readers, etc). This might even extend to alternative language/disability support and (somewhat ironically) the ability to print onto plain old paper.

So what have I missed? I'd love to discuss this topic and related areas more so please leave me a comment.
I'd also love to have the time, skills and supervisor buy-in to trying to present my thesis in the manner I've outlined; however I suspect that that will remain a pipe-dream...


  1. Isn't at least part of what you are describing simply a website?
    We use sharepoints a lot at work, embedded files within word docs and the like, links to internal video sites etc...

    The key to uptake is simplicity.
    Sharepoints aren't designed to flow like a document, in fact they perform an entirely different function, but their relative simplicity and power could be harnessed to create almost an individual site for each document's subject.

    I'd agree with the limitation of a virtual piece of paper - i.e. pointing and clicking at a 2d object on the screen does not give a very interactive experience. With the advent of tablets and touchscreen phones the use of fingers to do more than just point and click is developing. For example imagine something like a tablet menu that was a 3d shape that you spin to select desktops from 6 options. The brain's ability to remember shapes is clearly more developed than its ability to remember text or menus. A shape that you control with your fingertips would be more memorable and intuitive for those not used to menu driven systems.
    Slightly off-topic there, but what I'm trying to say is that the IT hardware is itself driving this change, and the applications are lagging by providing traditional document format that is designed for point and click mediums.
    You no longer need a desk to work at. You need a sofa, or a commute to work, or a coffee shop etc, why limit ourselves to a set of standard international paper sizes and corresponding 'file' or 'folder' system that was lifted entirely from the original office environment.
    We are beyond that now.

  2. Thanks for the comment Pete, some interesting points.

    I think everything I describe could be fulfilled through a website (or at least using HTML) - in fact I think that would be a pretty good method of content delivery. The difficulty comes, as you say, in achieving simplicity. Although navigating through website menus and links is straightforward and familiar to most end users, the actual process of authoring a website is still pretty tricky. Admittedly there are various programs around to assist in this process, but overall (especially once you start trying to include complex images or animations) it's not trivial.

    I guess this is where a framework like Sharepoint can really help out. I'm not too familiar with it but the little experience I have with it was pretty good. I'm not sure how well it handles more complicated stuff like embedding 3D objects or adding audio?

    I definitely agree that developments in hardware are really driving changes in the way information interaction is happening. And whilst I see a lot of industries reacting quickly to capitalise on this (predominantly advertising and entertainment), I share the feeling that others are lagging behind somewhat.

    I can't think of anywhere this is more true than in academia, where the electronic submission of theses still seems to be heralded as a new thing and additional hard copies must still be laboriously printed and bound prior to full submission.