Re: Why We Need Good Software Manuals

Subject: Re: Why We Need Good Software Manuals
From: Charles Good <good -at- AUR -dot- ALCATEL -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 24 Jan 1996 17:10:14 GMT

In my industry (telecommunications), customers have mixed feelings
about online resources (e.g., tutorials, computer based training,
and online help). In general, our customers seem to prefer accessing
a vendor's database via modems or direct access [digital] lines.

However, they have had years of bad experiences with not being able
to access real-time information databases or having equipment failures
in severe weather conditions. This might be due to a telephone service
outage or information provider computing problems or simply hardware
failures on the user's platform. As a result, the one thing they do
trust is paper. In fact, many trades people prefer paper.

For one thing, they have had a life time's experience in using paper
and they are very familiar with the physical cues that paper documentation
provides for relative ease of navigation. Secondly, they can personalize
the paper with annotations in the margins because it is their copy.
The speed of the computer and reduction in weight does not seem to be
as valuable as once thought.

I remember one case where a customer had a specific way that his teams
used technical manuals to solve problems. They would get a 6-foot long
table and spread out the following manuals: a product information manual,
a turn-up manual, a commands and message manual, an administration and
maintenance manual, a trouble clearing manual, and a support documents
(backplane schematics) manual. No computer screen in the world can allow
the user to view (legibly) all these manuals simultaneously. In addition,
it is difficult to cross-check information in different manuals with
a computer tool. Until the computers can do these things, his company
wants paper!

I've seen companies try to force online services and paper alternatives
on customers. I've seen companies offer the same at a substantial cost
break in hopes that their customers would get hooked and abandon paper.
However, no matter how successful the online and paper alternatives are,
people still want the security of paper backup. I've even seen a couple
of very large companies form their own documentation groups to produce
paper documentation for products that do not meet their standards.

For the last decade, I've seen industrial engineers and data processing
experts present compelling arguments on how eliminating paper documentation
can result in huge savings in floor space, heating and cooling costs,
production and distribution costs, and librarian staff hours required to
maintain and organize paper manuals (not to mention the fire risk associated
with paper). Nevertheless, a large number of people prefer paper and I
suspect they always will. Therefore, we need to make paper documentation
as efficient and productive as possible. Unfortunately, as more emphasis
is given to the hyped up online services and paper alternatives, there
is a tendancy to place less emphasis (and effort) on paper documentation
which means its content and quality suffers.

(o o)
| |
| The views expressed are my own and do not |
| necessarily represent those of any organization |
| that I am affiliated with. |
| |

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