Re: Printing an incomplete manual

Subject: Re: Printing an incomplete manual
From: Chris Betterton <chrisb -at- CONTEXT -dot- CO -dot- UK>
Date: Wed, 2 Apr 1997 13:44:00 +0000

> > Melonie wrote:
> >
> > I am in a quandry. I wondered if anyone else has experienced
> > this. I am the only technical writer working for a small
> > company producing a database which will be used by mostly
> > computer illiterate individuals. Our software is changing
> > daily. However, I have been asked to provide a "Limited
> > Edition" manual which will be printed soon. The manual
> > will be outdated almost as soon as it leaves the office.

> Kristine wrote
>
> My experience with end users who are nontechnical or computer illiterate
> tells me that they do not adapt well to change. Typically, the reason they
> use the computer is because they have to use it to get their job done. And
> when the computer gets in the way of getting that job done, they get
> frustrated. Software that changes frequently will frustrate them quickly.
> Why is the software changing so rapidly? Is the user interface changing?
Is
> the functionality changing? Are bugs being fixed?
>
> I'm not a cynic by nature, but this situation spells trouble from the
> software perspective. I think your company, not you, has at least one
> fundamental problem: a flaw in its development methodology, namely, to
> release a product before it's ready.

<snip>

> Your challenge is this: change management. You need to be aware of all of
> the changes from "release" to "release" so you can document those changes
> explicitly for your end users. I would suggest delivering, along with your
> help file, a hardcopy "Summary of changes" document that addresses all of
> the changes. This document should be short, not more than a page or two,
so
> the end user can quickly get a feel for the changes. The reason I would
> provide this on hardcopy is because your users are nearly computer
> illiterate. (All things being equal in another situation except for
> computer-savvy end users, I would put the summary of changes in a readme
> 1st file or some other online format.)
>

I'm in a very similar situation to Melonie - sole technical writer, smallish
company,
database products for computer illiterate users (lawyers!), products
continually
changing. I'd agree with what Kristine said about there being a flaw in your
company's development methodolgy, because we have the same flaw here, and
products often go out with bugs and have to be updated frequently. To some
degree this is unavoidable in a competitive marketplace - the pressure to
release the product (especially when people have already paid for it) is
immense.

I too have been trying to work out ways to manage this change, as suggested
by Kristine. Up to now the focus in my company has been on printed
documentation, which is a nightmare to maintain. In an ideal world I reckon
the solution is to shift all the information to online help.

The problem is that computer illiterate users they just won't use it. There
was a post a little while ago about the challenges of just getting non
computer people to use online help, with somebody saying that the solution
was education. This was possible in one writer's situation because the help
system was for in house use, so she could train people herself. But
persuading people to use an external system - now there's a challenge.

I reckon the solution to a situation like this is to strike a balance
between printed and online material. I find it is the detailed reference
type information that goes out of date quickly, and the introductory, task
based information that lasts longer. So the introductory information goes in
the printed material, and detailed reference information goes online.

This has the advantage that most of your users, if they're non techies, will
rarely look at the reference information. As Kristine pointed out, they just
want to get the job done and don't care how the software works, unlike
system admin bods. Also, when they're learning the product, many users
prefer the information to be printed, not on screen - it's more convenient
and the concept of having two things on screen at one time can be a bit
scary.

I'd be interested to know what you decide Melonie, as I still haven't found
the ideal solution.

Chris

Chris Betterton
Documentation Writer
Context Limited
email: chrisb -at- context -dot- co -dot- uk
web: www.justis.com

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