Re: Is Hypertext more productive

Subject: Re: Is Hypertext more productive
From: Jon Waldron x4415 <jon -at- SWIFT -dot- HQ -dot- ILEAF -dot- COM>
Date: Sun, 27 Mar 1994 21:39:44 EST

> Some time ago, someone here posted a message which included a quotation to
> the effect: "Software companies aren't driven by their users; they're driven
> by technology." (I think the word "geek" was in there somewhere, too.)
> I claim that the push to all-online docs is part of this. My experience
> does not support any assertion that users mostly want to do away with paper
> docs in favor of online help.

[stuff deleted]

I read with great interest Jim Grey's description of how different
groups of users at his company had different attitudes and
experiences with Interleaf's online documentation. He also makes
interesting points about what drives companies (like Interleaf) to
put their documentation online.

I was peripherally involved with the creation of the online
documentation for Interleaf 5, and have been been much more involved
with the creation of the (much changed) online doc for Interleaf 6.

Interleaf's initial decision (in 1989) to emphasize online doc over
printed doc was driven not by technology or by requests from users
(the surveys we conducted seemed to indicate that most users wanted
both paper and online doc), but by economics. At that time,
Interleaf had nearly half a million dollars tied up in
documentation inventory. Faced with an ultimatum to fix the inventory
problem, Interleaf's TechDoc department proposed a fairly
sophisticated plan that included developing online doc technology and
continuing to provide printed doc "ad hoc" generated from the same
files as the online doc. In other words, we would optimize our
documentation for online use but continue to provide a printed version
if a customer requested it.

[The story of that development and writing effort was the subject of
an STC seminar at the 1992 conference in Atlanta.]

To make a very long story short, we experienced problems in every
phase of the effort--including technology problems and limitations,
culture shock for writers who had never written for online
distribution, and schedule constraints that prevented us from fixing
many obvious problems. Our initial hope had been that we would
provide both well-engineered online information and adequate printed
documentation for the many customers who continued to tell us that
they preferred the printed stuff. (An aside: we also hoped that more
users would actually SEE the documentation if it was coupled with the
product. Many customers told us they never did see the documentation,
since it was locked away in a storage closet at their site.) I think we
achieved partial success. However, I think everyone involved
underestimated the long-term effort needed to create highly
functional online documentation (not just online Help, but online
documentation), and this is the crux of my response to Jim.

Many of us face a similar situation now or will soon: we are old
outright (or perceive) that print documentation is no longer
economically viable. Also, it may no longer be competitive (but
that's another letter). Meanwhile, we are aware of the promise and
limitations of online doc technology, but we may not have the skills
or experience to manage the transition to primarily online doc.

I don't think we can settle the debate about whether hypertext doc is
more or less effective than printed doc until we have really good
hypertext doc systems, which means having Publications departments
that are highly skilled in creating hypertext documentation systems,
AND (as Sean O'Donnell-Brown points out), readers/watchers/users who
are comfortable with strategies for using hypertext. For what it's
worth, I think this will happen and that before long "documentation"
will be almost synonymous with "online." Of course, I could be wrong,
which would explain why (printed) computer books like "DOS for
Dummies" are enjoying explosive growth.

With the release of Interleaf 6, nearly five years after our initial
attempts to understand and produce online doc, I'd like to think our
department has succeeded in producing online doc that is better than
the printed doc we used to ship. Unfortunately, I'm much too close to
that effort to be objective. I can say, however, that five years
hasn't been nearly long enough to get all the bugs out.

Jon Waldron
Senior Manager, Technical Documentation
Interleaf, Inc. Waltham, MA (USA) 02154 (617) 290 4990
Internet: jon -at- ileaf -dot- com or jwaldron -at- world -dot- std -dot- com

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