Manual design questions?

Subject: Manual design questions?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 12 Feb 2001 11:09:10 -0500

Paul Kent is <<... reworking the Word templates we use to create Operations
and Users Manuals... Different user groups get different manuals that use
different templates, but we are attempting to create a single look and feel
to span our entire
line... The manuals are distributed via PDF files. The manuals are used
onscreen to some extent, but they are also likely to be printed out on site;
hence we find ourselves compromising between on-line usability and printed
out usability.>>

Ideally, you should provide a separate version for each use, since screen
and paper formats are so different, but that's often infeasible due to time
and other constraints. Compromise solutions always look and feel like
compromises: neither fish nor fowl, nobody knows which wine to serve with
them. <g>

<<There is a body of documentation already in use; drastic changes to the
existing templates risk eroding any brand recognition that our documents
have established with our customers.>>

"Branding" relates to an awful lot more than just the appearance of the
page; in fact, that's arguably the least important part of branding. That's
particularly true if the existing templates already differ widely enough
that they present no single impression of the brand. Usability and the
overall impression of your company that a reader gets from reading the
manual are much more important aspects of branding in the context of
documentation. That being the case, you don't really need to preserve
existing formats, though it would of course be desirable not to create a new
design that is completely unrecognizable. If the current formats have been
broadly accepted and found to be useful, stick with them or look for a
compromise that uses as many of the older template's features as possible.

<<Is there a current consensus on serifs; particularly serifs in headings,
but also in titles, headers/footers, and body text?>>

The rule of thumb is "serif fonts for body text, sans serif for headings",
but like any design rule, you shouldn't follow that blindly. With modern
computer fonts, differences in legibility between serif and sans serif
aren't all that significant. So long as the typeface you choose permits a
legible onscreen font and doesn't challenge the reader's expectations, it
doesn't really matter whether you choose serif or sans serif for a given
text element. But in practical terms, you can't ignore user expectations;
for example, non-French North Americans are more familiar with serif body
text, so you should probably stick with serif fonts for such an audience.

<<Is there a current consensus on chapter numbers in the page number (that
is, 4-3 vs page 15).>>

Nope. Some people love 'em, others hate 'em. I don't usually see much need
for them, but that's a question you should ask your audience, not us.

<<is there a consensus on mixing font sizes so that the actual page number
stands out more (for example, 4-3 vs. 4-3).>>

It's rare to mix font sizes within a single text block, and because it draws
attention to the difference, I'd advocate not doing so. After all, how hard
is it _really_ to recognize which part of that numbering relates to the page
number? If it's easy to recognize that in pages 4-4 and 4-5, on facing
pages, the -4 and -5 refer to the actual page number and the 4- refers to
the chapter, there's no need to highlight anything. If it's not easy, then
you probably want to rethink this numbering scheme.

<<Is there a current consensus on chapter tables of contents>>

I find them useful for long chapters, but many authorities consider them
wasted space. Again, forget about what the "authorities" think: ask your
audience what they find effective.

<<Is there a consensus on rule rules? Do they rule:} or ...:<? We're
currently using them to frame our content area>>

Unless you're writing crossword puzzles, use rules (lines) sparingly. In
many cases, careful use of white space works as well as or better than
rules.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"User's advocate" online monthly at
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