Re: TW and grad school -Reply

Subject: Re: TW and grad school -Reply
From: "Linda K. Sherman" <linsherm -at- CONCENTRIC -dot- NET>
Date: Thu, 12 Feb 1998 10:13:06 -0500

Michael Lewis wrote:
> Linda makes some really good points, but I'm not convinced that format
> is the major issue. In terms of what the user wants to do with the
> information we are delivering, surely the issues are information
> structure and navigation.

I intended to include organization and navigational issues by using the
term "format"--poor choice of words on my part. I agree that
organization and navigation are the main issues; that was actually what
I was trying to say.

> I have never accepted the argument that printed text is "linear".

Well sometimes it is. Novels, for example. More relevant examples are
training materials, tutorials, and procedural instructions. These may
not be entirely linear ("If your computer doesn't have a CD-ROM drive,
skip to step 27"), but overall they tend to be and are usually meant to
be used in that fashion. If anything, this is an argument for putting
them online--it's very hard to stop a use from jumping around in a
hardcopy manual.

> The
> physical design of books, with judicious use of headings and other
> labels in the text, gives the same facilities as hypertext at some cost
> of speed and convenience -- and size, if you compare a 30-volume
> Encyclopedia Brittanica with a single CD! But users don't like to juggle
> thick manuals as they work their way through a series of dialog boxes or
> on-screen forms.

I'm not sure that's universally true. The advantage of having a hardcopy
manual in front of you is that you can see the screen image and the
documentation at the same time. Very few workers have terminals
sufficiently large that they can open a documenation or help window
beside their main work window without at least some overlap of the
windows and resulting loss of visible information. This can be a
problem, especially if you're trying to duplicate in your main window
what you're reading in your doc/help window. Cut and paste helps (if
available) in situations where you're copying text, but if you're, say,
entering data into formatted fields in a data entry window, chances are
pretty slim that you'd want to enter the data given in the doc/help
example. The bottom line is that I have more room on my desk for books
than for a second terminal!

Hardcopy "systems" can often be radically improved by judicious use of
those little stick-on tab things to mark FUPs (frequently used pages). I
must also point out that very few online help/documentation systems
allow the user to add their own notes, and those that do rarely allow
the user to put their notes just any old where in the text. With
hardcopy, you can scribble in all the notes you want, right where you
need them most. My programming reference manuals tend to be extremely
marked up.

I think another reason people don't like hardcopy documentation is
because the type of binding often fails to consider that the book is
going to be laid open flat on a crowded desk. High-quality wire spiral
bindings that allow you to fold the book back on itself are the best,
and yet hardly anyone uses them.

The usefulness of online documentation and help will vary considerably
from one situation to the next, of course, as well as from one user to
the next. I don't think it's possible to generalize accurately or
fairly, and I would certainly recommend consulting with the end users if
at all possible. Most commercial software manufacturers don't ask, but
frankly, I don't think they want to know. Their documenation policies
are driven by cost and marketing factors, and by inertial investment in
existing documentation, not by user preferences.

> Hypertext makes it easier to generate (or facilitate)
> multiple optional paths through the information, and allows the user to
> be unaware of the bits that aren't immediately relevant. Working with a
> 200-page manual when you want only the information on pages 83, 14, and
> 167 -- in that order -- you can't help but be aware of the other 197
> pages. Whether the information on those three pages is presented in one
> format or another is not immaterial, but it comes second to finding the
> stuff.

Again, I think we have to look at this in the larger context. If I know
what I'm looking for, and I only want specific information, then
everything you say is true. But very often I don't know what I'm looking
for, or I want to browse for "goodies". This is easier to do with paper
manuals, in my experience. The World Wide Web is a good example. If you
know where you're going and/or exactly what you're looking for, it's
relatively fast and simple. But if you're not so certain, the Web is a
prime example of how not to do this kind of browsing. It's slow, you can
get throughly lost trying to follow links, and it takes a lot of skill,
ingenuity, and patience to use search engines.

Linda K. Sherman <linsherm -at- concentric -dot- net>
Lintech Systems, Inc.
Programming and technical communications consultants
Specializing in computer telephony systems
4745 Grand Blvd. - New Port Richey, FL 34652 USA

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