A practical guide to creating reference information: part 3

Practical guides

In part 1, we examined how reference information differs from other learning content, the purposes it fulfils and the formats that it can take. In part 2, we explored best practice in terms of the presentation of information. In this third and final part, we look at the various ways you can provide access to your information

Tables of contents

Tables of contents (TOCs) are usually associated with print publications but still have a valid role to play in digital media. Whereas searching can be a rather hit and miss affair, a TOC provides an organised and orderly gateway to a body of information. Every situation is different, but there are some general rules that will help you in preparing a TOC:

  • Organise the table in a way that makes sense to your user, not what is easiest for you. Think of all the situations in which a user might come to your information and how they would expect to drill down to find what they want. Should the information be organised in task order, by category, chronologically or alphabetically?
  • Keep menus to a reasonable length while keeping the loading of new menu pages to a minimum. This might sound an impossible compromise to make, but there are all sorts of ways of hiding and revealing lower-level menu items using the sorts of tree menus you find in your computers file managers.
  • Draw your user’s attention to the most commonly sought after items of information. You could even have a top ten list.
Chrome TOC
Google provides access to its Chrome help library though a table of contents, but also - as you would expect -through a search box
Chrome help
The length of this menu is kept to a minimum by the use of collapsible menus. The user chooses which menu is appropriate to their operating system. Notice how Google draw your attention to a popular favourite - '20 things I learned about browsers and the web'.


Search used to be considered a rather unfriendly way for users to access information, but search technologies and users skills in searching have come on in leaps and bounds. The advantage from a user’s perspective of using search over a TOC  is that it shortcuts all that drilling down through menus. A search facility is now expected and should definitely be provided if at all possible.

Search can be improved by tagging, the process whereby descriptive labels are applied to content. The process of tagging can be managed on a top-down basis, by content authors, or bottom-up, when users supply their own labels.

Wordpress tagging
This box is used to add tags to postings on the Onlignment blog

Making suggestions

Another way to get users to information that they could find useful is to provide them with intelligent suggestions. An easy and obvious way to do this is to provide ‘Related items’ links at the bottom of each piece of information. You could go a little further by building up a profile of each user and then suggesting links that you know from their past usage history would be relevant to them – something like what Amazon do with their ‘People who bought this title also bought …’ suggestions.

PowerPoint help
This entry in the PowerPoint help system is supplemented by links to related items. Notice also how the word 'object' is linked to a pop-up glossary entry.

Peer recommendations are always the best, so you may also want to provide a facility to let users recommend items of content to their colleagues, perhaps by emailing them a web address or through some social networking tool.

Unless you have a great deal of programming expertise at your disposal, chances are you’ll be limited in the way you can provide access to information by the tools already available to you. Where you do have choices, use them wisely. Listen to your users and let them tell you what they find useful and what’s just dressing.

This guide is now available as a PDF download

Coming next: Sorry, that’s all our practical guides finished. Unless there’s something we’ve missed … ?

About Clive Shepherd

Clive Shepherd has written 244 post in this blog.

Clive is a consultant specialising in the application of technology to learning and business communications. He was previously Director of Training and Creative Services for a multinational corporation and co-founder of a major multimedia development company. For four years he was chair of the eLearning Network.

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  1. says


    Thoroughly enjoyed this guide. I’ve also learned that conducting a user experience survey and using the results to design the templates of the reference guides greatly enhances the value of the reference guide. In addition, a little knowledge about information mapping can do wonders; you’ve already talked about that.

    I’d appreciate reading an Information Architecture guide/ebook. Unfortunately, I haven’t come across a decent one on the Net. It’d be great if you could take that up as your next topic.


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