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I've followed this discussion with interest. It seems to me, however, that
you can't really generalize and say one method is more effective than the
other. Documentation (online or written) is married to the product it
describes. For some products, online-only might be the best way. For others,
a written manual is the ONLY reasonable solution.
For example, our company develops software for auto dealership personnel.
Among others, our users include the guys who enter your repair order when
you bring your car in for an oil change. There is absolutely no way these
guys with their VT220 terminals (i.e. 12 inch screen, tiny green letters)
are going to page through extensive online manual windows to find a solution
while customers are waiting in line. They might, however, grab a paper
manual and look for the solution on their break so they can help the next
customer. We do provide online help, but it's short and context sensitive,
and allows users to enter data while the window is still open. Full blown
doc online with an index etc. would NOT work for these clients using this
On the other hand, we also have a product for Parts managers who use 19 inch
X-terms. This product lends itself to an online manual with on-screen help
pages, and we provide minimal written documentation.
Another reason it's impossible to speak in generalities on this topic is the
fact that you can't divorce the vehicle from the content. There is really
well written online documentation and useless afterthought material, just as
there are good and bad paper manuals. Is a mediocre online manual better
than good paper doc? Vice versa? In other words, it isn't the media but the
message. (Remember your Tech. Writing 101 class?) When you see a poorly
written and badly organized manual it's easy to believe online doc is a good
alternative, but if the same writers are producing the online doc, wouldn't
the poor documentation just be delivered in a different form?
IMO, the answer isn't jumping on the latest trendy bandwagon and saying "The
book is dead! Long live online!" but rather in producing QUALITY training
material in whatever form. As many on the list have pointed out, there are
inherent limitations to online help. It is simply one of the tools we have
available to do our job. Let's use each tool appropriately when the
application calls for it, instead of calling all our other tools obsolete.
Both camps are correct: online documentation is superior for SOME
applications, and written doc is superior for others. In many cases, you
can't go wrong by providing both. As a wise man once said, "Why choose?"