A small, innovative group like ours is continually forced to make difficult decisions about what projects to take on next. We just haven’t got the time to try all the things we can think up. As a result, we’ve had to develop our own set of notions about what’s cool — what adds value rather than glitz, what helps our users the most, what will pass twin tests of novelty and utility. Over the years we’ve developed an aesthetic. We think that the best innovations are both fundamental and (mostly) invisible to the user. They’re just the way things should be. Make no mistake — we like fancy, flashy tech stuff just as much as anybody– but we’re very aware that a lot of it is just geek-fashion that, however pretty it may be, doesn’t offer much to our audience.
Indentation is an interesting case in point. Over the years, a lot of you have told us that indentation is one of the best features of our CFR edition. It makes our edition much more readable than the unindented versions in print and on the Web. Now, indentation is hardly innovative — it’s been around since at least 1482, when it appeared in an incunabulum of Heinrich Knoblochtzer. It’s not like we were the first people to think of it.
However… even though indentation itself is not particularly innovative, designing computer programs that automate the process over collections the size of the CFR is really, really hard (and, to be honest, our work on it is far from perfect). The indentations don’t appear in the text files that we get from the Government Printing Office. The only clues we get are the placement of enumerators (text addresses like the (a), (1), (iii), and (A) in 8 CFR 103.3 (a)(1)(iii)(A)). In theory, they follow a pattern (small letter, digit, roman numeral, capital letter) as the levels become more granular, but in reality the pattern can be different in different places in the CFR, and even within a particular section. And, as you can see in the section linked above, it repeats when there are more than 4 levels. To make things even more interesting, the Federal agencies who write the regs in CFR occasionally make mistakes — it is not unheard-of for a small roman-numeral “(i)” to be followed by a “(j)” because someone wasn’t paying close attention when editing. The software that sorts all of this out — and then tries to audit the results for correctness — is very difficult to design; we’re currently on our third attempt, and as you can see in the linked example, we have a ways to go. Writing computer programs that attempt this task is a pretty good way to make your head hurt (DAMHIKT).
But here’s the thing about our donors: you’re the kind of people who think indentation is cool, too. Recently, a bunch of you said so in your responses to one of our surveys — and we were delighted to hear it. Interestingly, many of the same people said they placed a fairly low priority on “development of innovative features.” We loved that, because we think innovation should be so ready-to-hand as to be invisible. And the fact that you guys find it so is very cool.