Re: Good Manuals - Why Rare.

Subject: Re: Good Manuals - Why Rare.
From: "Mark Baker" <mbaker -at- omnimark -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 20 Mar 2000 15:54:54 -0500

> I'm wondering if there isn't an industry trend here that would be worth
> discussing as well. I'm reading that a lot of readers/users/customers
> your pick) are beginning to make selections of products based on how easy
> those products will be to install and use. Dell, Gateway, and some of the
> newer computer suppliers seem to be gravitating toward making it possible
> for the non-technical user to "buy with confidence."

I think it is just a matter of certain products reaching maturity. PC's are
certainly to the point where manufactures can hardly compete on features.
All PCs have a more or less standard set of widgets and more MIPS than it
takes to run the space program. Ease-of-use has therefore become an
important differentiator. I don't see a trend in the market as a whole, just
certain products passing naturally into that part of their life cycle.

> If this is an actual trend, and not a segment idiosyncrasy or temporary
> market exigency, wouldn't that bode well for the writer who can understand
> complicated systems and software enough to explain them more simply?

If anything I would think it was the opposite. The more a product is
designed for ease of use, and the more it becomes a commodity with which the
average person has a reasonable degree of sophistication, the less need
there is for sophistication in documentation. Cars are certainly in this
stage. When you sit down in a rental car, do you pull out the owner's manual
and start reading, or do you do a quick check of the position of the
controls and then drive away? The sophisticated writer is needed in products
that have not reached this stage.

> Might this also mean we'll see a resurgence of the Technical Illustrator?

I didn't realize there had been a decline. But I think product maturity is a
double edged sword for the illustrator as well as the writer. Combine
greater user sophistication with mature product design and you will get more
situations in which pictures can be use exclusively or predominantly to
document simple installation and operation tasks. But on the other hand,
less documentation is needed in general, and commodity items usually won't
sustain the extra cost of expensive documentation in a price conscious

On the subject of why good manuals are rare, I have a suggestion for a
thesis topic, if somebody needs one. (Unless its already been done -- if so
I'd love the see the results.) My thesis, based on unstructured observation
over many years, is that the perceived quality of documentation correlates
inversely to the maturity of the product.

That is: Documentation of mature, well designed products with which users
are already familiar, is commonly perceived as good. (It is also the stuff
the people choose to attempt to prove that text can be completely replaced
by graphics.) Documentation for new, immature products for which users have
no basis in experience, is commonly perceived as bad. Users often cannot
tell the difference between difficulties caused by bad design, those caused
by bad docs, and those caused by their own lack of sophistication about a
product and its uses. They tend to blame the docs.

It is the immature, or inherently difficult, products that need good docs
and good writers. But because, even with good docs, they are still going to
be hard to understand and learn, people are often reading the docs and
getting frustrated. And they blame the docs.

I think this profession as a whole heaps too much praise and too many awards
on docs that look good because they document a mature well designed product,
and not nearly enough on docs that struggle to support immature products for
users who have no adequate frame of reference for understanding or using

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