of Hypertext and Graphical User Interfaces

Ted Nelson’s Dream Machines [Nelson 74, p. DM 58]:


My work is concerned principally with the theory and execution of systems useful to the mind and the creative imagination. This has polemical and practical aspects: I claim that the precepts of designing systems that touch people’s minds, or contents to be shown in them, are simple and universal: making things look good, feel right and come across clearly. I claim that to design systems that involve both machines and people’s minds is art first, technology second, an in no way a derivative specialty off in some branch of computer science.

However, presentational systems will certainly involve computers from now on.

Since hundreds of such systems are now being built, many of them all wrong, we must teach designers (and certain others) the basics of computers, and give them some good examples (such as Sutherland’s Sketchpad, Bitzer’s PLATO, and, I hope, some of my own designs.)

Further, the popular superstitions about computers must be fought – the myth that they are mechanistic, scientific, objective or independent of human intend and contemplative involvement.

Nelson’s Canons
A Bill of Information Rights

It is essential to state these firmly and publicly, because you are going to see a lot of systems in the near future that purport to be the last-word cat’s-pajama systems to bring you “all the information you need, anytime, anywhere.“ Unless you have thought about it you may be snowed by systems which are inherently and deeply limiting. Here are some of the things which I think we all want. (The salesman for the other system will say they are impossible, or “We don’t know how to do this yet,” the standard putdown. But these things are possible, if we design them in from the bottom up; and there are many different valid approaches which could bring these things into being.)

These are rules, derived from common sense and uncommon concern, about what people can and should have in general screen systems, systems to read from.

1 Easy and Arbitrary Front Ends

The “front-end” of a system – that is, the program that creates the presentations for the user and interacts with him – must be clear and simple for people to use and understand.

The Ten Minute Rule. Any system which cannot be well thought to a layman in ten minutes, by a tutor in the presence of a responding setup, is too complicated. This may sound far too stringent; I think not. Rich and powerful systems may be given front ends which are nonetheless ridiculously clear; this is a design problem of the formost importance.

Text Must Move, that is, slide on the screen when the user steps forward or backward within the text he is reading. The alternative, to clear the screen and lay out a new presentation, is baffling to the eye and thoroughly disorienting, even with practice.

Many computer people do not yet understand the necessity of this. The problem is that if the screen is cleared, and something new then appears on it, there is no visual way to tell where the new thing came from: sequence and structure become baffling. Having it slide on the screen allows you to understand where you’ve been and where you’re going; a feeling you also get from turning pages on a book. (Some close substitutes may be possible on some type of screen.)

On front ends supplied for normal users, there must be no explicit computer languages requiring input control strings, no visible esoteric symbols. graphical control structure having clarity and safety, or very clear task oriented keyboards, are among the prime alternatives.

All options must be fail-safe.

Arbitrary front ends must be attachable: since we are talking about reading from text, or text-and-picture complexes, stored on a large data system, the professional front end must be separabel from the data services provided further doen in the system, so the user may attach his own private conveniences for roving, editing and other forms of work or play at the screen.

2 Smooth and Rapid Data Access

The system must be built to make possible fast and arbitrary access to a potentially huge data base, allowing extremely large files (at least into the billions of characters). However, the system should becontrieved to allow you to read forward, back or across links without substantial hesitation. Such access must be implicit, not requiring knowledge of where things are physically stored or what the internal file names my happen to be. File divisions must be invisible to the user in oall his roving operations (freedom of roving): boundaries must be invisible in the final presentations, and the user must not need to know about them.

3 Rich Data Facilities

Arbitrary linkages must be possible between portions of text, or text and pictures; annotations of anything must be provided for; collateration (see p. DM 50) should be a standard facility, between any pair of well-defined objects; Placemark facilities must be allowed to drop anchor at, or in, anything. These features imply private annotations to publicy-accessible materials as a standard automatic service module.

4 Rich Data Services Based on These Structures

The user must be allowed multiple rovers (movable placemarks at points of current activity); making possible, especially, multiple windows (to the location of each rover) with displays of collateral links.

The system should also have provision for high-level mooting and the automatic keeping of historical trails.

Then, a complex of certain very necessary and very powerful facilities based on these things, viz.:

    ...a system of visible, principled re-use, showing the origins and context of quotations, excerpts and anthologized materials, and content transiting betwen versions (transclusions)
    Ted Nelson in Xanalogical Structure
  1. Anthological Freedom: the user must be able to combine easily anything he finds into an “anthology,” a rovable collection of these materials having the structure he wants. The linkage information for such anthologiesmust be separately transportable and passable between users.

  2. Step-Out Windowing: from a place in such an anthology, the user must be able to step out of the anthology and into the previous context of the material. For instance, if he has just read a quotation, he should be able to have the present anthology context dissolve around the quotation (while it stays on the screen), and the original context reappears around it. The need of this in scholarship should be obvious.

  3. Disanthological Freedom: the user must ba able to step out of an anthology in such a way an not return if he chooses. (This has important implications for what must really be happening in the file structure.)
Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox for June 14, 1998:
Keep all old pages on your server forever (unless they are truly misleading and are replaced by an update)
If moving pages, leave a redirect behind

Earlier versions of public documents must be retained, as users will have linked to them.

However, where possible, linkages must also be able to survive revisions of one or both objects.

5 “Freedom from Spying and Sabotage”


6 Copyright


> more excerpts from Dream Machines