Re: On-line vs. paper documentation

Subject: Re: On-line vs. paper documentation
From: Christian Walters <dcwalter -at- DCW -dot- B23B -dot- INGR -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 9 Mar 1993 15:14:59 CST

I knew I shouldn't have sent a message that I was rushed through
(Mother Nature was screaming for my attention :) )

Joan -dot- M -dot- Laflamme -dot- 2 -at- ND -dot- EDU says:
>I don't agree with Christian Walters, who said, "Seems like the old paper
>docs were fine in their day. But now . . . there is NO WAY a novice user
>(or many experienced users) are going to flip through a big book, not to
>mention a whole stack of big books to find out how to save their file to a
>different name or change their working directory or whatever."

Dissention is the spice of life :)

>At least I don't agree that the day for paper documents is gone. I do agree
>that novice computer users won't wade through stacks of paper documents to
>learn how to perform relatively trivial computer tasks, but then, if the
>paper documents were well written, users wouldn't have to, would they?

This is true. If someone wants to, say, change his default printer
queue, he could flip to the index of a well-written (and well-indexed)
document and look for "Printers" and then "Queues" as a subheading or
something. And if the document is handy, that's probably the way to

But if someone has to go to a shelf full of manuals for.. say.. VMS,
and scan through the cryptic topics on the binding, yank it out, and
then flip to the index to see if he got the right one, then it'll get
frustrating real quick. Especially if someone else has that volume
somewhere else. So he goes and disrupts the support person's game of
"Battle Chess" to ask about it. And, of course, the support person
doesn't know offhand, so HE has to dig through HIS set of documents..

(Meanwhile, the guys books are getting stolen from his terminal if
he's in a college computer lab.)

If you had a small document chained to every terminal that said
"Everything A Dipstick User Like You Will Need To Know About This
Software," then life would be good. :)

>On-line documentation that is poorly written will confuse and irritate
>novices just as quickly.

True, true. I'd rather have a well-written hard copy that took a
pickup truck to move than a poorly written online help system that I
could access in nanoseconds.

>Sometimes a well-written hardcopy is just what I want; other times on-line
>documentation is more useful. It depends on what I'm trying to do. The key,
>though, is well written.

But another key is accessibility. A non-computer-oriented person, in
my experience, doesn't have much patience with documentation. If it's
not immediately available and understandable, then that person is
*not* going to research it. He'll (sorry to keep using the
gender-specifics, but I'm too lazy to restructure my sentences :) )
either ask whoever is next to him, hassle the support person, or just
*guess* and maybe screw everything up.

>We are beginning to post some of our documents to our campus information
>service, which runs on Gopher software. That creates all kinds of new
>problems because of the ASCII format. With no graphics and limited options
>for formatting, documents need some special care before uploading. Just
>dumping them won't work at all, at least not if you want to post something
>readable. It is an interesting challenge.

One of the half-assed things that some people do when creating online
help or documentation is just dumping the paper copy to the screen,
which doesn't work well. You can get away with things on paper that
you can't with a little window in the corner of your screen.

>Sorry to be so wordy. I've violated my own rule for list postings--If it is
>longer than one screen, I'm not interested.

I bet lots of users take that attitude with online documentation, too :)


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