Paging through the Manual using Access Keys

2007-11-19, , , , Comments

Random Access

These days most reference manuals are designed to be read in a web browser. This has many advantages, especially for random access. Standard search techniques bring up the page you want — and section-hopping is a snip.

Sequential Access

Sequential access may be less convenient. Suppose you actually want to read the manual. Maybe you’re evaluating a new build technology, and you’d like to flick through the manual to get an overview of how it hangs together. Or maybe you’ve been charged with upgrading your company’s source control system from CVS, and you need to read the Subversion manual carefully, from start to finish.

If the manual is well designed this shouldn’t be hard. Each page will have a prominent Next link; you keep clicking this link to advance through the manual. This does have problems, though. If the link moves or your mouse moves (which, after all, is what mice are meant to do) you waste effort concentrating on pointer placement instead of following what you’re reading.

Hot Keys

My feed reader client, Google Reader, is designed to allow you to skim through a mountain of new material sequentially, and you drive it all using the largest key on the keyboard: the spacebar. This apparent simplicity is a product of good interface design and hardcore javascript.

DocBook offers a number of lo-tech solutions to this problem. The first, which shouldn’t be neglected, is that it’s possible to convert DocBook sources into something more suited for paging though at leisure — hard-copy!

Restricting ourselves to HTML output, DocBook can generate output as single block of HTML, which you can then page through using the spacebar (or indeed by using the mouse wheel, but there’s no need for pointer precision). For chunked HTML, DocBook by default places access keys on each page:

  • N takes you to the next page
  • P takes you to the previous page
  • U takes you up a level
  • H takes you to the top-level

Once you discover these keys and once you’ve worked out how exactly to use them on your platform, you’ll use them more and more.

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Paging through Word Aligned using Access Keys

Word Aligned is a time-ordered chain of articles which you can page through using access keys.

  • N takes you to the next article (newer)
  • P takes you to the previous article (older)
  • H takes you home