Indexes in the PDF era?

Subject: Indexes in the PDF era?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Erika Yanovich <ERIKA_y -at- rad -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 19 Feb 2007 08:41:51 -0500

Erika Yanovich wonders: <<Before starting an initiative to improve our indexes, I consulted with the team leaders and to my surprise, one of the possibilities mentioned was to not provide indexes at all. The claim was that people are now so used to search for everything (google effect) that using indexes became somewhat archaic.>>

The first part is true; the second is nonsense. I've seen some good studies (can't put my fingers on them just now, but they might turn up with a little work) that people give up quickly if a search doesn't turn up the results they're seeking, or turns up too many results. I suspect this is one big reason why many people never use our documentation. One data point from me: I've pretty much given up on full-text searches in many programs, and go straight to the index instead. (Ironically, Word's online help is usually quite searchable, but the results when I find what I'm looking for aren't so hot.)

<<It is true that search results are often too many and useless, but one can search within the search results and refine the search criteria - a process that people are familiar with.>>

(1) You can't always search within the results. (2) You can narrow your search, but in my experience, most people don't know how to do this. Remind your "team leaders" that unless they are the same people you're writing your docs for, they are not representative of that audience and should not be used to define its characteristics. On the contrary: relying on them for audience information is likely to be highly counterproductive. Of course, if they _are_ your audience, then it pays to listen closely to what they're saying. But even then, you want a reality check from people less familiar with your product.

<<Even if a small percentage of old-timers still use them, preparing indexes might not be cost-effective.>>

Before you can define "cost effective", you need to be able to define the cost to a user who cannot find the information they're seeking. If you're Microsoft, the cost is zero: for most people, there's no other game in town, so it doesn't matter if they can't find what they're looking for. If you're smaller, and have a viable competitor, the cost may be a lost customer who goes to a developer with more of a clue about user support. In between those extremes, you get costly calls to tech support, errors that ruin someone's day, and time wasted while hunting down the one person in the office who knows how to complete a task. Are we being cost effective yet? <g>

-- Geoff Hart
ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca / geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com
Coming soon: _Effective onscreen editing_ ( home/onscreen-book.htm)


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Indexes in the PDF era: From: Erika Yanovich

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