Getting rid of the manual?

Subject: Getting rid of the manual?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, David Loveless <daveloveless -at- gmail -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 25 Jul 2006 12:33:23 -0400

David Loveless reports: <<My company is moving away from a printed user manual. We are doing this gradually to ease our customers into it. Our previous version had 500 pages of user documentation, our current has 150, and the next will probably have nothing more than a quick start card or guide.>>

This isn't inevitably a bad thing, though obviously you have to think it through carefully. For example, I've seen troubleshooting guides that ship only on CD, which makes them completely useless if you can't boot your computer. You have to wonder whose bright idea that one was.

<<Instead of a manual, we are providing vastly updated and more complete Help files.>>

This too is a good thing.

<<First--Has anyone out there done this, and what problems did you encounter?>>

Haven't done it myself, since I'm a print chauvinist <g>, but I can provide a strong reason not to get carried away with this approach: the sales of "For Dummies" and O'Reilly books provide compelling evidence that people are keenly interested in printed manuals. If you're not producing print docs for a best-selling commercial product, someone else will get rich publishing the manuals--all money that you could be reaping for your company. Don't forget that docs are included in the production cost of any product, and thus get the same markup (i.e. profit margin) the rest of the product gets. Looked at in this way, documentation can actually become a profit center.

Conversely, if you're producing a niche product, you have to ask yourself who will fill the gap left by these commercial publishers. We know the gap exists (O'Reilly proves it). The odds are good it'll be your technical support department that has to fill it if you guessed wrong. Might be a good idea to start tracking support costs now so you'll have some statistics about whether your move to all-online docs is a good thing. If costs decrease, great. If not...

<<Our biggest concern is the customer reaction.>>

Apparently not. If it were your biggest concern, you'd be asking them, not us, and following their advice, not ours. <g> Sarcasm aside, that's not a point you can afford to neglect. If you haven't asked your customers what they think, you're taking an awfully big spin on the roulette wheel. Better hope you guess right!

<<They are very used to getting a nice printed manual, and they don't really trust the Help.>>

"Danger, Will Robinson!" <g> One of the biggest problems with any form of documentation is that once a user is burned by it (i.e., they can't find what they want), they're very reluctant to return and try again. You've got a big sales job ahead of you if you want to convince them that Help is a good thing, and you'd better test your Help files to destruction to ensure they work as well as you think they do. In fact, you'd better test them with the actual users, and allow time to revise and re-test in response to their feedback. That's particularly crucial given that this is your first serious effort at a major help project: you don't have a long history of experience with customer needs to give you confidence you're doing the right thing.

<<How do we sell the user on the idea?>>

I did it by working with the trainer to include a 5-minute session on using the online help. Seems like a stupid thing to have to do, but the trainer tells me the students appreciated it and that it greatly reduced his burden (since he was also the tech support department <g>). Only one data point, but there you have it.

<<We are also having problems getting buyoff from some members of management.>>

Why? You need to find out their concerns before you can address them, and sussing out the real reasons (as opposed to what they may say) can be tricky.

<<Is there any evidence or studies out there that compare the value of a manual to a help file?>>

I'm sure there is, but it's probably sufficiently situation-specific that it may not apply to your situation.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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Getting rid of the manual: From: David Loveless

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