On-line vs. Print (WAS: Of myth and reality)

Subject: On-line vs. Print (WAS: Of myth and reality)
From: eric -dot- dunn -at- ca -dot- transport -dot- bombardier -dot- com
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 29 Jul 2002 13:52:04 -0400

On list, I often hear the recently repeated phrase "online help and printed
documentation have entirely different requirements". Is this really true, or is
it just a myth that serves as simple termination to discussion of studying more
efficient ways of delivering information to the users?

While information is presented in a different format in online help and printed
documentation, this is simply a difference in templates. I do not consider any
point concerning colour, page size, fonts, or anything else touching templates
as a validation of the phrase above.

A point was made by someone else that in my view was missed or ignored in the
general arguing over single-sourcing. To paraphrase, it seemed to conclude that
the best printed manuals were those that had the best linking, cross-references,
indexes, table of contents, and which could be read EITHER cover to cover or
picked up to quickly resolve an issue at hand.

The difference between such a manual and it's corresponding online help IMO is
only a difference in presentation. The manual will invite the user to read the
manual from cover to cover but allow them to easily skim past technical details
to find the 'how-to' information. The online help file will do the opposite,
present the user initially with a quick method to get the 'how-to' information
but allow them to browse more indepth information if they so desire. Seems to me
there is little difference between the two. While identifying and implementing
the two different organizations may not be a trivial task, it seems the only
difference between online and print is one of organization and presentation.

Looking at the two as entirely different entities is what I would believe to be
the reason we have haphazard online help with little indepth information
continuously referring back to printed documents and documents from which it is
difficult to figure how to simply use the software to perform a task.

So to challenge what seems to be the popular (mis-)conception amongst many, what
are these "entirely different requirements"?

Eric L. Dunn

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