66.1, February 2019

Hypertext Theory: Theoretical Foundations for Technical Communication in the 21st Century

By Craig Baehr and Susan Lang


Purpose: As the field of Technical Communication adapts to changing conditions, new ways of describing the field are vital. This article discusses important characteristics of hypertext theory, developed over the last 70+ years, as a theoretical foundation that informs and defines the core competencies and practices of the field of technical communication.

Method: This article initially reviews the significant literature on hypertext theory as well as recent selections, which help situate or define technical communication in the 21st century. From this literature, we developed a framework to examine correlations between characteristics of hypertext theory and compared those to skills, processes, and products in technical communication.

Results: Hypertext is a foundational theory which informs the processes and practices of contemporary technical communication, and in particular, core competencies in developing content, design, structure, and in the processes of information development and user experience design. Given technological evolutions, technical communicators continue to work with content informed by hypertextual theories and practices, to create multi-pathed, user-driven, dynamic experiences.

Conclusions: Characteristics of hypertext theory have become essential parts of the core competencies required in the daily work of technical communicators. Furthermore, they can be used to describe our daily work as well as to help us frame professional development, certification programs, and identify as a field.

Keywords: hypertext theory, technical communication, core competencies

Practitioners’ Takeaway:

  • Specific characteristics of hypertext theory that inform technical communication include collaborative authoring, content focus, hyperlinking, hypermedia, intertextuality, and multi-path non-linear information modeling.
  • Hypertext theory and its characteristics have influenced the development of the core competencies of technical communication as well as its wide range of products and practices, including how we create and manage content, design, structure, information development, and user experience.
  • An understanding of hypertext theory as a foundational framework can help technical communicators learn and appropriate new communication tools, technologies, processes, and practices.
  • Hypertext theory, as a theoretical foundation of technical communication, can help us, as professionals, better articulate our processes, practices, and professional identity as a field.

As the field of technical communication has matured, we are constantly informed by newer theories, practices, and technologies that articulate and inform the value of the work we do. As our profession has expanded in its core competencies and roles, from technical writer to technical communicator, the nature of our work has been transformed from simple print-based writing and editing into developing information and content experiences for a wide range of users. However, our theoretical foundations have been just as influential in our evolution and have helped us articulate those core competencies, products, and processes.

Hypertext theory, which is invoked by those in fields as diverse as computer science and literature to discuss the alphanumeric, later multimodal texts built in both print and digital environments, has a close connection to technical communication. The definition of hypertext itself is deceptively simple; in computer science, it is simply text that acts as a link to other text, and the technology to enact this linking has been in existence since the 1960s; it became widely available to the public in Apple’s HyperCard application in the 1980s. In parallel, in critical theory, hypertext theory/hypertextuality (though not all theorists use the specific term) describes texts that refer (and link) to other texts in terms of intellectual impact rather than physical presence or proximity (Barthes, 1974; Foucault, 1972; Genette, 1982). Hypertext theory, as written for the last 70+ years, contains close connections to poststructuralist and postmodern theories, and ultimately encompasses broader notions of content, collaboration, structure, design, and process in online and digital publications and environments (Bolter, 1991; Joyce, 1996; Landow, 1989, 1991, 1997, 2006; Moulthrop, 1991).

In addition to its larger cultural context, hypertext theory broadly informs the processes and practices of technical communicators in the 21st century. Hypertext theory’s primary characteristics inform many of the products and specializations in the field and has the potential as a foundational theory that underpins the work of technical communicators. As one example of its relevance, hypertext theory, while conceived and executed in a period apparently dominated by waterfall development processes (linear, with clearly demarcated stages, and author-focused), in fact, called for what we today know as agile or iterative processes (non-linear, team-based, and involving users). Subsequent evolutions in technologies and processes have continued to reinforce characteristics of hypertext theory as a significant influence in other aspects of technical communication, as well.

While scholarship about hypertext and hypertext theory has ebbed and flourished in technical communication publications, we see principles of hypertext theory at work in much of what practitioners in technical communicators do. At a time when we hear colleagues bemoan the fragmentation of technical communication as a coherent field (Hart-Davidson, 2001; Rude, 2009), we see hypertext theory as a useful framework for describing and understanding our field. In the following pages, therefore, we provide an overview of the history of hypertext and hypertext theory, including discussion of its key characteristics. Then, we discuss how these characteristics have informed and influenced technical communication, particularly in the areas of content, design, structure, information development, and user experience. And, finally, we discuss some potential impacts for the field and its future.

Characteristics Of Hypertext Theory

Despite the relative limitations of the available technology, media, and applications during its evolution as a theory in the 1980s and 1990s, the concepts of hypertext theory, as described by many writers over the years, have persisted and evolved in various forms of practice over the last several decades. Hypertext’s underlying characteristics include collaborative authoring, content focus, hyperlinking, hypermedia, intertextuality, and multi-pathed (some would say non-linear) structures. As technical communicators continued to appropriate various authoring, communication, software tools, and applications, each of these characteristics continued to inform our collective methods and practices as a field. Many of these traits overlap and inform one another and have been appropriated into a wide range of specializations within technical communication. Each of these characteristics is defined and discussed within a technical communication context, below.

Collaborative Authoring

Initially, hypertext theorists (Bolter, 1991; Joyce, 1996; Landow; 1989) viewed collaboration as a way of elevating reader at the expense of the author—a competitive aspect, initially. It was suggestive of an environment, though, that would encourage multi-authored works synchronously and/or asynchronously. Another precursor was the fact that an author could work in hypertext, hypermedia, or both. Early hypertext systems, both actual and conceptual, included the ability to share, code, comment, and link to content created by other authors (Bush, 1945; Nelson, 1965). Today, virtual team collaborative authoring can be done both asynchronously and synchronously, with many of the same features. Collaborative authoring tools (including wikis, meeting applications, social media tools, and cloud-based software programs) are commonly used in various combinations to produce and publish content. As such, technical communicators have adopted a wide range of collaborative authoring processes and practices as integral skills in the work they do.


Hypertext theory expanded the nature and capabilities of linear, print-based content beyond the idea of a single document comprising alphanumeric text and graphics. Early hypertext content included text chunks, or lexias (e.g. Barthes, 1974; Rosenberg, 1996), links, markup, visual media, and interstitial space (Joyce, 1996), which could be created independently and connected using various content authoring tools. Hypertext content suggested modular use (and reuse) within (and between) documents or systems (Bolter, 1991; Landow, 1997). Today, content has evolved similarly into multi-layered, multi-modal forms including complex combinations of reusable text, visuals, space, and media. Component content management is a widely used practice, in which content chunks (or units) are structured, tagged, and reused within content management systems. Within these systems, content is created and developed on a structural level (architectures), a semantic level (metadata), and a surface level (image, layout, text), and repurposed (and used) across an increasingly wide range of information products and platforms.


The fundamental cognitive associative tool to help structure content and enable user-driven navigation within one or more hypertexts was the hyperlink, first labeled as such by Theodor Nelson (1965). By an associative tool, we mean that a hyperlink enabled authors to create multi-pathed, user-driven reading experiences. Hyperlinks were essential in creating modular content which could be linked, repurposed, and reused. Conceptually, hyperlinks were also one of the first digital forms of content semantics, in that textual links formed keywords and linked two elements together, which suggested relatedness or relevance (Bolter, 1991; Landow, 1997). Today, hyperlinks allow technical communicators to point, associate, include, and connect content within the same document as well as virtually any other accessible documents, digital or online. Virtually every authoring tool integrates the ability to hyperlink content sources. Hyperlinking has become more than a useful tool—it has become an established practice used by technical communicators in authoring and publishing.


Within hypertext, hypermedia was used to describe both static and motion-driven media (such as images, audio, and video) as the earliest forms of digitally interactive content (Barrett, 1991; Landow, 1997). It expanded the function of content, beyond text, to present content both textually and visually as the user demanded. Hypermedia responded to three types of learning—audio, visual, and kinesthetic—and, in theory, could integrate them seamlessly into a multimodal presentation of information. As technology evolves, older media forms (and products) converge, combining their functions into newer, more dynamic ones (Jenkins, 2006). Cellular telephones, more specifically, smartphones, and tablets, such as the iPad and Microsoft’s SurfacePro, are examples which initially enabled voice transmission and integrated other functions such as texting (from pagers), image (from cameras), live video (from camcorders), social media, and other forms of content transmission. As a result, the convergence has enabled us to create, share, and publish hypermediated content, which delivers increasingly rich, dynamic, and engaging content (and experiences) for users.


Intertextuality describes the implicit and explicit links between documents, which extends the boundaries of a single document, beyond a single page or file, to include external content sources (Bolter, 1991; Lanham, 1993; Joyce, 1996; Landow, 1997). Intertextuality also describes the relationships between documents, whether the content is directly linked, cross-referenced, or connected in some other fashion. As such, this early hypertext characteristic also emphasized the notion of relational content and semantics. Today, we see intertextual examples in content management systems, digital reports, social media content, websites, and many other forms. Within content management systems, the information networking capabilities can be seen as an extension of intertextuality, which allow technical communicators to source content and connect with users across a wide range of information resources and locations. As a result, intertextuality creates more dynamic and content-rich information products and experiences.

Multi-pathed or Non-linear Structures

Another important characteristic of hypertext was structural, enabling authors to create multiple customized information structures and paths within documents, which were often non-linear (Coover, 1992, 2000). Multi-pathing suggested organizing content in ways that users have choices in how they navigate, read, and experience content (Bolter, 1991; Landow, 1997). Within hypertext systems, authors planned possible pathways for users connecting content using hyperlinks and nodes, or connecting points, within a document’s structure (Landow, 1997). And often, users would find their own paths through a document that were not considered by the authors. Today, information architecture has become its own discipline, focusing on creating user-centered associative and structured content. Information modeling is common practice that technical communicators use to structure content resources within a document or system (Hackos, 2007). And an increasingly complex range of navigation tools within documents and systems allows users to search, customize, personalize, and organize content to fit their own unique needs.

Collectively, these characteristics create a content-focused environment in which information resources can be leveraged via user-driven navigation tools, repurposed for a wide range of documents, and used to create and connect content, communities, and users. Hypertext’s characteristics continue to inform both product and process (on structural, semantic, and content levels) helping to create a broader and more dynamic user experience in technical communication today.

The Evolution of Hypertext Theory and Practice

Hypertext, as a theoretical concept, has existed in some form for over 70 years and has been advocated across disciplines from computer science to literary studies. It was a buzzword of the 1980s and early 1990s but appeared to become dormant by the end of the 20th century, largely because there was not sufficient convergence between its theory and practice (or implementation) in publication. Hypertext theory, like technical communication, is inherently interdisciplinary in nature, and those who are credited with developing early iterations included both theorists and practitioners from a wide range of backgrounds.

Perhaps the first name associated with hypertext theory was Vannevar Bush—mathematician, engineer, and head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II—a visionary thinker who explored the ways in which machines could augment the human mind. Bush’s Memex, introduced to the public in the 1945 Atlantic Monthly article “As We May Think,” was a mechanized, microfilm-based information authoring and sharing device that would enable people to create “associative trails” between topics and ideas as one navigated through the materials stored on it. Although the Memex never progressed beyond the theoretical, Bush’s description of the user creating “associative trails” that linked and combined others’ materials with those generated by the individual would be echoed repeatedly by others who published on hypertext theory or developed early technologies for its implementation.

Few similarities exist between Bush and Theodor (Ted) Nelson who in the 1960s, coined the term hypertext. Nelson was initially trained as a philosopher who wanted to create a tool that would enable the writing and connecting of documents in an associative way. Unlike Bush’s Memex, which was conceptual, Nelson’s Project Xanadu was an actual prototype hypertext-like system. Nelson’s project tried to set itself apart from the work of others developing platforms for electronic texts, although after several iterations, the “parallel pages, visibly connected” feature fell short of instantiation according to Nelson’s vision. Despite the limitations of his work, Nelson’s conceptual influence is clearly evident in both local and networked software applications, the largest, of course, being Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web, which would come nearly three decades later.

Douglas Engelbart, primarily known as the inventor of the mouse in the 1960s, also shared Bush’s vision that technology could help extend and advance human intelligence. Engelbart’s 1962 report “Augmenting Human Intelligence: A Conceptual Framework” summarizes and quotes from “As We May Think” at length before discussing the point that Engelbart finds critical—the Memex. In the report, he emphasizes the importance of

the implications extending from Bush’s mention of one user duplicating a trail (a portion of his structure) and giving it to a friend who can put it into his Memex and integrate it into his own trail (structure). Also note the “wholly new forms of encyclopedia, “the profession of “trail blazers,” and the inheritance from a master including “the entire scaffolding” by which such additions to the world’s record were erected. These illustrate the types of changes in the ways in which people can cooperate intellectually that can emerge from the augmentation of the individuals. (p. 56)

Engelbart (1962) also describes the implementation of a “card system” he developed over the preceding eight years, using paper-based note cards to generate, record, and classify information. Although he could describe in some detail the benefits for working in the paper-based system, what became most obvious to him were the shortcomings. He notes

that the job of extracting, rearranging, editing, and copying new statements into the cards which were to represent the current set of product statements in each grouping was rather tedious. This brought me to appreciate the value of some sort of copying device with which I could transfer specified strings of words from one card to another, thus composing new statements from fragments of existing ones. (p. 61)

Engelbart (1962) also highlights a hypothetical interaction between user and computer to solve an increasingly complex set of problems and follows with the outlining of a research agenda to pursue the design and testing of such a system. What’s important to note here is the extent to which Engelbart emphasizes human-computer interaction (HCI) throughout his text, with an emphasis on the importance of the human intellect. In his conclusion, he notes that our “problem-solving capability represents possibly the most important resource possessed by a society. The other contenders for first importance are all critically dependent for their development and use upon this resource” (p. 131).

The 1970s were the decade of such developments as UNIX, of the first email, of the first microprocessor—in short, components necessary for the development of an actual, fully realized hypertext system were coming to fruition. From then until the early 1980s, the theories advanced by Bush, Engelbart, and Nelson in the mid-twentieth century were generating software applications. Interestingly, the same theorists writing about hypertext were also implementing them in practice. HyperCard was released by Apple in 1987—a digitized version of the “cards” Engelbart discussed 25 years earlier. That same year, Michael Joyce and Jay David Bolter released the first version of StorySpace, a narrative-based hypertext system for works of fiction and nonfiction. Two years earlier, Norman Meyrowitz began the Intermedia project at Brown University, which would soon be used by George Landow to develop the Victorian Web (Landow, 1991). The ACM held its first Hypertext and Hypermedia conference (now Hypertext and Social Media) in 1987. And in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee proposed an information management system at CERN using “distributed hypertext” that would become the World Wide Web.

Software development was flourishing, as were publications discussing how hypertext “fit” into the world of communication. A significant number of these publications took more of their cues from Nelson than Bush or Engelbart. Many came from the field of literary scholarship or creative writing, and their purpose was, in part, to explore a new “writing space” (Bolter, 1991; Joyce, 1996; Moulthrop, 1991) while examining the role of digital technologies in writing media and, in part, to link hypertext to poststructuralist and postmodern critical theory (Landow, 1991, 1994). Despite the explosion of Web-based technologies following Berners-Lee’s initial development of HTML, a new generation of theorizing and writing hypertext failed to be fully realized. Why? In part, because such scholars as Vandendorpe (2009) contend that the segmentation and fragmentation espoused by hypertext, ultimately, did not fit the needs of most literary authors, and, as a result, many abandoned it entirely. Later disagreements and disconnects between theorists seemed to also relegate hypertext to the sidelines (Snyder, 1997; Pang, 1998).

Despite this short decline in scholarly publication on hypertext theory, Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web would create the platform with the technological capability to instantiate much of the vision of the first generation of hypertext theory. The Web was founded using ideas of decentralization, non-discrimination, non-hierarchical design, universality, and design consensus. Unlike such applications as HyperCard or StorySpace, HTML, HTTP, and Uniform Resource Identifier (URI; later, URL) technologies could cross operating systems from the outset. While, as Pang (1998) noted, the Web was not precisely hypertext as described by the theorists of the 1980s, nor did hypertext theory accurately predict every way in which electronic publication technologies would evolve, the primary characteristics of hypertext theory would continue to influence information technologies as well as the work of technical communicators.

Beginning in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, technical communicators began turning their attention toward hypertext theory, perhaps due to the availability of tools like Intermedia, HyperCard, StorySpace, and, of course, the World Wide Web. During this time, Edward Barrett’s three edited collections on hypertext represent the most extensive examination and should, perhaps, be considered the first authoritative voice who focused on aspects of hypertext relevant to technical communication in his volumes The Society of Text; Text, ConText, and Hypertext; and Sociomedia. Barrett noted that his 1988 Text, ConText, and Hypertext calls for integrating “three related areas of technical communication: writing, management, and computer technology” and thus “revisioning . . . the roles of writer, manager, and engineer” (p. xiii). Barrett imagined a future where writing would not be “ancillary support” but would be the “context in which development proceeds” (p. ix). Barrett seems ambivalent to the work of the critical theorists, noting that hypertext and hypermedia create “a mirage of depth” and that developers operate with a romantic notion of writing that still focuses on a single reader-author. In this view, Barrett finds that “[h]ypertext is essentially a muscular note-taking, or note-gathering, mechanism” (p. xxi).

In his 1991 The Society of Text, Barrett more explicitly rejects the cognitive basis on which Bush, Engelbart, Nelson, and many of the more literary/critical theorists based their discussions of hypertext. He labels hypertext as “a paradigm for the social construction of meaning or alternate ‘texts’” (p. xiii) and terms “the most supple hypertext . . . a muscular hypertext, an active system rather than a passive one, would support the social construction of meaning that characterizes understanding and communication in the larger world beyond the computer screen” (p. xiv). Barrett seems to turn away from industry applications to education; in 1994, he suggests that the term “sociomedia” is a more accurate description of what hypertext and hypermedia do and claims that the term “forces us to look outward from the machine into the complex interaction of human relationships which define ‘university’ and ‘education’” (p. 9).

Barrett’s edited collections represent some of the most comprehensive treatments of hypertext, in that his work looks at both industry and academia and examines both theoretical and practical components. Throughout the 1990s, treatment of hypertext in technical communication followed a bifurcated path before it largely disappeared as a primary topic for technical communication. One thread followed a largely pragmatic agenda which attempted to introduce hypertext to the profession and report on specific, focused studies of readability, navigation, etc. (Rubens, 1991; Bernstein, 1991; Selber, 1994, 1997; Smith & Nelson, 1994; Wenger & Payne, 1994; Wickliff & Tovey, 1995; Bolter, 1998).

The other line of discussion and research regarding hypertext generally focused on more theoretical and/or abstract realms. Johnson-Eilola (1996) argues that the service model of technical communication is not helpful to the field, and that we must rearticulate technical communication to “symbolic-analytic work”—that is, working within and across information spaces. Albers (2000) examines the state of technical editing and discusses how user-driven hypertext/single-sourced documents can change the role of the technical editor. He recaps “traditional” editing at the turn of the century, then considers how these new kinds of documents could change the task of the editor. Albers recommends the addition of more training in content editing, coherence of text chunks, and the like. In other words, the task of the editor could become shaping documents for coherent multi-pathed chunking.

In 2001, Bill Hart-Davidson argued, in his treatment of technical communication’s core competencies, that technical communication needed a theory, and that writing, particularly hypertextual writing, should be at the center. Hart-Davidson points to a discussion of hypertext closer to the tradition of Bolter and Landow than to Barrett when he references Johnson-Eilola’s 1996 “Relocating the value of work: Technical communication in a post-industrial age” and 1997 Nostalgic Angels: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing. Hart-Davidson writes

Johnson-Eilola acknowledges the interesting paradox of hypertext, noting that it is by definition already “deconstructed” because it consists, in its native form, of distributed chunks of information–some of which might signify text, some images, some links, some executable code, and so forth. Yet the text is still experienced by the reader/user as a relatively real, coherent thing. The text can exist as a whole, but it does so only as an “effect” (1997, p. 149).

While Hart-Davidson’s work would have seemed to prefigure a key role for hypertext going forward, many technical communicators struggled with how best to implement theory and practice, in articulating its relevance, and it again moved to the periphery of our focus.

Hypertext Theory and Technical Communication in Practice

As technologies, media, and applications continued to develop into the 2000s, so did the actual implementation of hypertext’s characteristics within technical communication theory and practice. Authoring and publishing tools have capabilities that incorporate many characteristics of hypertext theory, which enable collaborative authoring, modular content, hyperlinking, hypermedia, intertextuality, and multi-pathed or non-linear information structures. These practices emphasize adaptability and agility, including roles largely defined by the nature of content and information products, and industry demands, which include a blend of experience and multiple specializations for its professionals (Baehr, 2015). Kimball (2016), for example, notes that the necessary skills for technical communicators entering the job market often include “the ability to analyze rhetorical situations, to learn and apply generic conventions intelligently in context, to use technologies to speak effectively to diverse audiences, and to solve human problems through better communication” (p. 23). And highly valued skill sets for technical communicators, which are logical extensions of these, include content creation and strategy, visual design, information architecture, information development, and user experience design. This collective range of specializations, or core competencies, represents the work we do today, in a holistic sense, and might be described as information experience design, which encompasses information development processes (both agile and iterative) used to blend content, design, and structural elements, into a cohesive user experience.

Content, Design, and Structure

While technical communication continues to require the development of skills such as writing, editing, and technology use, trends in education and training emphasize a growing need for a much broader skill set, including content development and visual information design (Meloncon & Henschel, 2013). Hypertext theory prefigures content development strategies used today, which address granularity (size) and chunks (units), and accommodate a modular approach to content (which can be linked structurally and semantically) and transformed into various formats for delivery. Structured authoring describes the processes and tools used in developing organizational frameworks for content, as well as using specific technologies (markup, scripting, software, etc.) for its presentation and delivery. As an example, Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) is still one of the most widely used structured authoring languages, which has evolved over the decades to include the capabilities of hypertext to hyperlink, structurally organize, and add semantic value to presented content.

Although content may refer broadly to reusable combinations of textual, visual, and spatial elements that comprise information products, visual information design is nonetheless inextricably linked to its presentation and delivery. Clark (2007) argues that although content and presentation (design) may be developed independently of each other, they are in fact interdependent when creating a product—a claim which still holds true across variations and evolutions in system and software environments. For example, in Web site development, markup languages (such as HTML) are combined with the use of scripting languages, such as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), which govern stylistic and positional characteristics, and others, such as JavaScript and Hypertext Preprocessor (PHP) are used to design interactive content and experiences. Design, in a technical communication context, incorporates all aspects of visual, spatial, and interactive (or hypermediated) content.

Developing content into coherent and usable information structures, whether at the superstructure (document, text, or product) or substructure levels of content (page or section), requires a complex understanding of how content relates to design. This task, described as information architecture, involves developing meaningful models and structural maps for content and communicating that structure to users (Rosenfeld & Morville, 2007). An extension of this work, component content management (previously discussed), describes the tasks of arranging content units as modular elements, which are assembled into a coherent, usable, and sometimes user-generated information product. These notions draw broadly from the hypertext characteristics of content-focused (content chunks), hypermedia (textual, visual, and interactive content), and multi-pathing (organizing and structuring content) discussed previously.

Information Development and User Experience

Two iterative and often agile processes that inform technical communication work include information development and user experience. Hart and Conklin (2006) argue that technical communicators have an “increasing involvement in planning and facilitating communication processes, not just products” (p. 413). The first process, information development, is the creation and management of content (visual, spatial, graphical) through its lifecycle (Clark, 2007), which involves the relational and semantic aspects of content creation. Information development incorporates three important hypertext characteristics: content-focused (modular content composed of text, visuals, and media), intertextuality (relationships between linked content), and multi-pathed or non-linear (user-centered associative content structures). A crucial extension of this development process and these characteristics is content strategy, which includes analyzing users, content, organizational needs, processes and technology to develop a strategy for content maturity that is sustainable and standardized (Rockley & Cooper, 2012).

As information development technologies and products continue to evolve, technical communication work has become more “focused on designing and delivering better experiences to individuals, groups, organizations, and entire cultures” (Moore & Kreth, 2005, p. 303). This second process, known as user experience design, has evolved as its own subdiscipline, which involves the “creation and synchronization of the elements that affect users’ experience . . . with the intent of influencing their perceptions and behavior” (Unger & Chandler, 2009, p. 3). User experience design is closely related to the hypertext characteristics of hyperlinked (user-driven reading experiences), intertextuality (connecting content and users across wide range of resources), and multi-pathed (user-centered associative and structured content). Lauer and Brumberger (2016) suggest a similar articulation of the skill sets of technical communicators, which include the “ability to design and structure content in order to facilitate users’ interactions with the range of information products, sites, and applications that span the entirety of a brand experience” (p. 262). In a holistic sense, user experience design involves creating interactive experiences, or processes that govern the hypertext-like intertextual, multi-pathed experiences afforded to users within a complex and semantically-rich information product, such as information-based Wikis and websites.

Implications and Examples for Technical Communication as a Profession

Technical communication and hypertext theory share several important characteristics, which include collaborative authoring, content-focus, as well as content that is hyperlinked, hypermediated, intertextual, and multi-pathed. Our work involves a wide range of related products and practices, including agile and iterative processes, collaborative authoring tools, content management systems, data and text mining, instructional design, markup and scripting, structured authoring processes, social media content, and wikis. Figure 1 illustrates this progression of hypertext theory, and how its characteristics evolved into our core competencies, which have, in turn, influenced our products and practices.

Figure 1. Hypertext theory and its characteristics have influenced the development of the core competencies of technical communication as well as its wide range of products and practices

Today, our products are designed for consumption by a potentially wider audience than that of the late 20th century via multiple platforms, largely informed by hypertext theory concepts and characteristics. Our information products contain words and varying levels of embedded media and visual content, depending on how a user chooses to access them. Digital artifacts often contain clickable links, both internal and external (to other documents) and often contain complex navigation and search tools. And they are easily produced and published, because even the most basic content authoring application have hypertextual features that make incorporating such elements simple. Authoring has become collaborative but infinitely more complex. While certain elements (video or audio clips, for example) may be produced by separate teams, the former writer or writers now assumes roles of Author/Editor/Designer/Curator/Strategist/Information Architect and even consumer of the material, using cloud-based applications and content repositories. These technologies have transformed not only the product but broadened the technical communicator skill set to encompass the design and development of information and user experience.

Another example involves the technical communicator’s work with structured authoring tools and languages, such as HTML, CSS, and XML outside of a system-based environment, such as a content management system or software program. These markup languages were designed based on the prime characteristics of hypertext theory and beyond those initial characteristics, their use has evolved based on their appropriation by technical communicators. By providing a language that allowed users to add customizable structures, hyperlinks, hypermedia, semantics, and presentational markup to augment the textual content, HTML changed the capabilities and environments in which content could be presented to users. These hypertext-based authoring frameworks also allowed content greater flexibility, through the use of tag sets, attributes, metadata, dynamic structuring, and transformation. As with the case of XML, technical communicators can completely customize their own language, with its unique set of rules regarding the content markup and presentation. As such, technical communicators began thinking of content creation from a multi-faceted perspective, including structure, design, usability, and interactivity as part of their work.

Additionally, social media content and tools illustrate the semantic potential of hypertext, creating collaborative, multi-pathed, and associative discussions which thread together various forms of hypertext and hypermedia. We see many practical examples embedded in social media content, including the use of APIs, hashtags, categories, tag clouds, memes, emojis and emoticons, visual imagery, and active hyperlinks, in complex combinations. Initially, social media was primarily the domain of public social discourse, but soon after its popularity, corporate entities saw its potential to broaden the user experience of both customers and stakeholders. As such, designing social media playbooks and implementing content strategy became necessary skills for technical communicators who support product development, technical support, documentation writing, and other Web-based publications.

These examples, and yet many more, demonstrate the ongoing connections between hypertext theory and concepts and practices used today in technical communication. Although our field’s evolution continues, hypertext theory provides a foundation for understanding how to articulate our skills, practices, and value to growing industries that rely on our products and expertise.


In 1962, Douglas Engelbart, one of the earlier hypertext theorists, saw the importance of finding best practices for harnessing the power of our capacity for both communication and critical problem solving. He wrote, in the concluding pages of Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework,

This is an open plea to researchers and to those who ultimately motivate, finance, or direct them, to turn serious attention toward the ‘possibility of evolving a dynamic discipline that can treat the problem of improving intellectual effectiveness in a total sense. This discipline should aim at producing a continuous cycle of improvements—increased understanding of the problem, improved means for developing new augmentation systems, and improved augmentation systems that can serve the world’s problem solvers in general and this discipline’s workers in particular. (p. 132)

One could argue the above plea resonates with our field’s evolution—that is, that technical communication is one of those disciplines that has helped harness the intellect, in part, through evolving skills and tools with strong influences and foundations drawn from hypertext theory. These characteristics also resonate throughout the core competencies for professional certification, which include project planning, project analysis, content development, organizational design, written communication, reviewing and editing, visual communication, content management, and production and delivery (STC, 2017). This range of abilities suggests that technical communication is rich in its specializations, methods, tools, and application of theory to practice. But, like other disciplines, technical communication focuses on function, or needs, and adapts to changing technologies of practice. Today, content and user analytics continue to drive the information structures of our products, and technical communicators build and strengthen new skills, through certification, continuing education and training, or pursuing advanced degrees. And when we look back at the theoretical foundations of these products, processes, and competencies, hypertext theory has been a strongly influential framework in defining their scope.

For many decades, hypertext theory has influenced and provided a framework for the work we do, even though this influence has not always been recognized by those of us in the field. Future technical communication practices and methods will likely continue to evolve from the foundations of our current agile and iterative ones. Our understanding of content integrates discrete characteristics and practices, which include related hypertextual ones, including collaborative authoring, hyperlinking, hypermedia, intertextuality, multi-pathed or non-linear information modeling, and may yet evolve to include many others. As we adapt and appropriate new communication tools and technologies, our application and understanding of these foundational concepts will continue to transform our work. And if we are in search of a way to better articulate our choices and our profession, hypertext theory provides one way forward.


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About the Authors

Craig Baehr is an STC Fellow and Professor of Technical Communication and Director of Graduate Studies at Texas Tech University. He serves as Chief Examiner of the Certified Professional Technical Communicator Program, Chair of the Certification Committee, and Faculty Advisor for the STC Texas Tech University Student Chapter. Dr. Baehr is author of three books, Web Development: A Visual-Spatial Approach, Writing for the Internet: A Guide to Real Communication in Virtual Space, and The Agile Communicator: Principles and Practices in Technical Communication. Previously, he worked in industry as a technical writer, editor, Web developer, and program director for ten years for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He is available at craig.baehr@ttu.edu.

Susan M. Lang is Director of the Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing and Associate Professor at The Ohio State University. In addition to hypertext in theory and practice, her research interests include technical editing, big data as it applies to teaching and assessment, writing program administration, and social media integration. Prior publications have appeared in College Composition and Communication, Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, WPA Journal, Computers and Composition, College English, American Medical Writers Association Journal, Technical Communication, The Journal of Writing Analytics, and various edited collections. She may be reached at lang.543@osu.edu.

Manuscript received 3 November 2017, revised 31 January 2018; accepted 27 March 2018.