Re: Online Documentation. New! Improved!

Subject: Re: Online Documentation. New! Improved!
From: Robert Plamondon <robert -at- PLAMONDON -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 17 Oct 1996 08:56:46 PDT

>Online may not be a 'real' manual, but it is a 'real' document and its
>acceptance/usage is growing 'real' fast.

The problem is not that it's impossible to do good on-line documentation,
but that the flagship products have garbage-scow documentation, and
many people cheerfully salute the flag and emulate the garbage scow.

Sure, you can do really cool on-line documentation. But it's a
fallacy that on-line documentation is all that different from any
other kind of documentation. It has the same goals, the same
subject matter, and the same readers as a paper manual would have.

Many people, though, have fallen for the line that on-line documentation
is somehow very different -- that the fact that it is on-line changes
the nature of the information that people need to use the product.
Specifically, products that always shipped with heavy and expensive
paper reference manuals sometimes appear with on-line-only documentation
-- and no reference manual. The assumption seems to be that the switch
from paper documentation to on-line documentation actually makes the
users stupid.

Of course, not everyone falls for this piece of idiocy, but I'm AMAZED
at the number of programs in whichI have where the documentation has sunk
to the duh-level -- where every self-explanatory button and field is
explained in massive detail, but there's no hint as to what happens when
you press the "OK" button.

For example, just TRY to find an explanation of QuickBooks' approach to
basic accounting practices in the documentation. It doesn't exist.
There's a duh-level explanation of the difference between cash and
accrual methods, but there's nothing to indicate which of the many
variants in accounting practices QuickBooks uses internally.

On-line help can be seriously cool, but at the moment most of it is at
a stage marked by the confluence of the "non-writers reinventing writing
in a vacuum" and "Wow! Look how many buttons, balloons, sound bites,
pictures, and hyperlinks I can cram into this paragraph!" phase --
much as desktop publishing was ten years ago.

Some of it is growing pains, but much is useless noise caused by people
emulating "market leaders" instead of figuring out what's what.

-- Robert
Robert Plamondon, President/Managing Editor, High-Tech Technical Writing, Inc.
36475 Norton Creek Road * Blodgett * Oregon * 97326
robert -at- plamondon -dot- com * (541) 453-5841 * Fax: (541) 453-4139

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