Please Give Us The Context

I’ve been noticing a problem more and more often, lately, in my daily habit of reading blog posts and articles while on the go. In the days prior to Internet-equipped phones (the iPhone in particular), reading feeds was perfectly manageable as every feed item would be accompanied with a date stamp for the article. And if I were reading not in my feed reader of choice at the time but simply in my browser, it usually wouldn’t take much effort to quickly figure out when a post was written: either the URL contained a date, or it would appear somewhere, somewhere on the page.

Recently, this scenario changed for me. More and more, I end up reading blog posts on my iPhone, either via the mobile NetNewsWire app or via Tweetie when people post links to Twitter. In both cases, the URLs are no longer visible and hitting page up/down or home/end is not an option. This new method of exploring content has highlighted a serious usability concern for me:

The temporal context has gone missing.

What I mean by that is simply the date of the article that defines how relevant and current its contents are. “The new version of so-and-so app is fantastic!”, “There’s been a lot of talk this week about …” and “So yesterday I caved and finally got [some product]” are all potentially useless commentaries when the reader has no idea yet what the temporal context is.

Great writing goes a long way to alleviating a lack of temporal context by embedding it as part of the article itself, but that doesn’t always work for every topic. A discussion of a current trend or ongoing debate will almost certainly be at a loss without a clearly defined date of context specified up front.

Without this seemingly innocuous but ever-so-important context of relevance, some articles can be either fantastically important or ridiculously worthless. And if your blog design or blog template of choice doesn’t list the date anywhere near the top, your reader may not know until after they’ve read the whole thing.

I was bitten by this myself about 6 months ago, when I came across an article (and a video clip) talking about how the Bush administration was trying to push a bill through congress that would preemptively grant them eternal protection (in advance!) against any trials related to war crimes or related responsibilities. I was pretty outraged to find out about this, but as I discovered after a couple of angry tweets and discussions with friends about it, the whole thing had taken place more than six months before I even moved to the USA.

None of the articles I read, including the ones referenced, had a clear indicator of when they were written.

That may have been a political case, but it’s just as applicable in the world of technology. For instance, one of John Resig’s recent posts starts with “I gave a talk last week”. That’s great when we encounter the article as a new feed item, but if someone encounters that post by following a hyperlink somewhere, five months from now, they won’t know how relevant that post is unless they first scroll all the way to the bottom of the post to see the date.

Many blog posts and articles written today deal with a current topic in some form or another. When the context is taken out and put very oddly at the bottom of the post, after you’ve read it all, it creates a hit-or-miss environment: all that you’ve read may or may not be of any use to you, since it may or may not be completely outdated information. You simply won’t know until after you’ve spent (or wasted) time reading it, unless you go through the unnecesary effort of scrolling down and back up, first.

If the date is listed directly at the top of the article, it allows you as a reader to go into the piece with the necessary context: “this post was written three months ago, so it may be out of date.” That doesn’t mean it is out of date, but it gives you an important bit of information prior to you spending time reading the article. Plenty of articles discuss topics that are timeless[1], or close to it; for those that don’t, knowing the context is important and knowing it up front can be crucial.

So for all of you bloggers and blog designers out there, for all of you writing for publications: please, give us the context.

  1. Resig’s talk, for instance, will be useful if not entirely up to date for at least another year.

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