Re: Online Documentation. New! Improved!

Subject: Re: Online Documentation. New! Improved!
From: John Russell <JRussell -at- DATAWARE -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 17 Oct 1996 09:29:00 -0400

Alas! Am I not alone!?!

>. In a book, you can flip through the pages, look at the table of contents,
>. or look in the index. Much of the on-line documentation I've been using
>. has NONE of these features. A top-level "topic list" replaces the table
>. of contents and omits about 90% of the information. A search-by-keyword
>. function omits virtually all of the utility of the index. The document
>. is a maze of twisty passages, so you can't even flip through it, since
>. it has no linear structure.
>. So, thus far, my best experiences with on-line documentation has been
>. with real manuals, and my worst have been with documentation that was
>. designed(?) specifically for on-line use, with everything done right
>. and proper according to the rules du jour (such as keeping topics short
>. by omitting anything that verges on complexity).

I have found that a well organized, structured, and chunked manual can
fit nicely into online help format. And, with careful execution of the
hard copy transfer to online, I can preserve the table of contents,
convert the index into a rich keyword search facility, provide
context-sensitive information, and really start helping the intermediate
(although maybe not the novice) user get the information they need.

Personally, I believe that anyone familiar with navigating through a
decent manual's structured content--either by browsing through a series
of pages, by using the table of contents, or by looking through a
well-developed index--will find using this same structure and format for
online help help*ful*.

I think what we more often than not see is people who are *not* familiar
with a structured manual (or any manual for that matter--users in
general just don't read the manual enough to become familiar and
comfortable with its organization) and therefore do not know what to
expect when viewing the same or similar information online. As such, we
get this school of thought that says, essentially, "give them
context-sensitive "duh" information and that will probably satisfy most
of them." This view, unfortunately, caters to the lowest common
denominator: the person who doesn't know the first thing about the OK

I think the environment (in particular Windows, but other environments
as well) has been around long enough that we can step up the level of
complexity a bit and actually start helping the vast majority of users
who are now one step up from having seen the computer only once in their

As you can tell, I have a hard time buying into the idea that online
help and hard copy must be developed separately.

Asbestos underwear . . . ON!


jrussell -at- dataware -dot- com

K. John Russell
Dataware Technologies, Inc
5 Computer Drive South
Albany, New York 12205

Anagram of the year:

Information Superhighway
New utopia? Horrifying Sham!

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