Reality? Was: HTML vs PDF

Subject: Reality? Was: HTML vs PDF
From: Scott Gray <scotty -at- CM -dot- MATH -dot- UIUC -dot- EDU>
Date: Thu, 12 Mar 1998 13:44:18 -0600


The PDF vs HTML topic quickly became a debate over the effectiveness
and place that interactive tutorials have in documentation writing.
Both in terms of cost effectiveness and learning effectiveness.

The very eloquent Tech list contributor Tim Altom and I have been
debating this issue privately over e-mail the last couple of days.
Tim has pointed out the realities and barriers experimentation that exist
in the business of documentation writing.

Tim has given me permission to post our debate the the Tech writters list.

Below is the full debate with Tim taking the side of reality and caution,
while I take the side of academic ideals and experimentation:


>If you Arlen's posts closely you'll discover
> that he's talking about a situation that exists in business, not in
> academic websites where you have the luxury of tinkering and experimenting.
> Businesses are different, and Arlen and I are both saturated in business
> imperatives. Arlen has a good point...your infatuation with one technology
> is actually a bit amusing to those of us who wrote long before HTML or PDF,
> and can still remember man pages in UNIX and DOS command-line help. And
> today, you might be surprised how many of us troglyde "real-worlders" do
> learn from word of mouth, by recruiting the aid of other workers who've run
> software that we haven't mastered. Further, you seem to have a fixation on
> learning and training, which is actually a tiny patch on the total usage of
> online. Online in the business community is dominated by terse help files
> intended for task assistance. Perhaps this is short-sighted, but we have to
> make a living, so we often do what the client wants us to do.
> Please don't assume that because we don't mindlessly embrace every new
> technology that we're fossilized. Arlen writes scripts and understands HTML
> as well as you or I. But like me, he could sit and recount dozens of such
> marvels that eventually disappeared from shelves and from corporate
> computer systems. The point is not to chase after the new, but to do the
> job at hand. And the job is rarely tutoring or training. At least, not in
> our world.


Thank you for your remarks.

I do understand the limits of coming in under budget, and I appreciated
your earlier post in which described your clients wishes and needs.

As for my posts, I am on a crusade to change learning. The experiences I
am having are powerful enough to try and persuade as many people as I can
to give it try themselves.

As for my posts, I am on a crusade to change learning. The experiences I
am having are powerful enough to try and persuade as many people as I can
to give it try themselves.

I also beleive that the availablity of documentation on the web, if
interactive and fun will proceed and encourage the sale of products thus
increasing the need and power of tech writters alltogether. I encourage
you to experiment with this possiblity.

Here is a hypothetical scenario:

You write an interesting and fun interactive document on programming
an "ACME" VCR. People on the web learn how to program it by trying
it online then getting feedback interactively. Then when they go to
buy a VCR they choose ACME because they already know ho to use it.

What do you think? Possible?


> In my line of work you have to be alert for buried assumptions, and I
> detect two or three here. First, you're probably overestimating the number
> of people with net contact, browsers, and the interest in using the web as
> a learning tool. Monitors are low resolution affairs, often with flicker or
> other flaws, and they give many people headaches. You can't snuggle up with
> one the way you can with a book, even a dry manual. That's why CBT, while
> popular to talk about, hasn't taken the tutorial world by storm.

>Second, no one buys VCRs or anything else this way. Only the most confirmed
>technophiles do so, and they're too rare to make a good living off of them.
>Almost everyone wants to touch something, play with it, smell it, get a
>feel for it. Humans are still basically monkeys. Further, most people
>generally want a salesperson around to get them over any speed bumps.
>Amiables and Expressives are particularly prone to this. Look at how many
>Web-based companies have folded due to lack of sales. Amazon hasn't made a
>nickel in profit. Neither has CompuServe, nor AOL, nor Netscape's browser

>Third, Web-based (or online in general) learning is targeted by necessity
>only to those who learn well this way, and they're not a high percentage of
>the population. You're essentially reaching the self-directed learners who
>feel comfortable with technology and who respond to the approach you're
>coding for. As any instructional designer can tell you, these are only
>about 25% of the population, at best. For example, will you code for left
>or right-brained learners? For top-down or bottom-up learners?

>This variability is the reason why the computer book section of Borders is
>so vast, because no two people want exactly the same approach to training,
>assistance, clarification, coaching, or other learning streams.Essentially
>a website is only one book, a book that has to be read when the network is
>up, the monitor is clear, and the computer is available. The fact that it's
>interactive, fun and creative is no more of a selling point than a sports
>car interior in a Ford Taurus. Get Cliff Stoll's "Silicon Snake Oil" and
>read it. He shows up many of the Web myths we've all been handed over the
>past ten years.

>That's not to say that a website can't work as a teaching tool. Of course
>it can. But everything from shovels to spacecraft have to be designed and
>built to specifications, and that includes tutorial websites. If you know
>your intended audience, your goals, your limitations, and the technology,
>you can put together a good tutorial on the Web, but you'll have to face
>the fact that you're going to sacrifice heavily to do it. Impatient
>learners may fall away, preferring the ability to flip through a book.
>Ditto for "groupers", people who graze on a subject, building a totality
>from a constellation of parts. These people like to read a little here, a
>little there, and if there aren't any links to those places, they'll log
>off and go get a book. I'm like that. I know how they think. And lest you
>pounce on this too quickly, consider that if you give me links going
>everywhere, you're going to infuriate the "stringers" who need a linear
>progression and hate having to make hundreds of choices of whether or not
>to jump out and back.

>I guess my point, and Arlen's, is that every approach and tool has its
>place. If I have a set of design specifications that permit a Web-based
>approach, I'll seriously consider it. But it's only one option, the same
>way that bridge designers now have thick catalogs of different steeltypes
>to work with when they had only a dozen or so a hundred years ago. Start
>with the design specs and work up a prototype, then test it. But know that
>you're intentionally leaving out a percentage of potential users, and that
>you're prepared to do that for the sake of your goals.



Yet another great message, but I have to try and persuade you to keep
your eyes on the horizon:

Estimates have the numbers at 100 million and will be 200 million
by years end.

Ask yourself, what are these people doing on the web? They are getting
information! That is, they are learning. They certainly aren't being

You say "no one buys VCR's this way", Is this because they don't want to
or because they haven't had a chance to yet? My wife even chose her
DOCTOR this way, an was completely
knowledgable of her ailment before went to see him. Given the oppurtinity
people WILL seek
out relevent information they need before making a decision, particularly
if they can do it
without ever leaving their house.

Anyone who claims they can't learn a skill by experimentation isn't
learning at all. 100% of people learned to drive a car by driving a
car, not by reading a manual. Even the guy who buys the book on
programming the VCR must actually program the VCR to learn to do it.
Computers offer a way to simulate these learning situations and take the
fear away of actually breaking something.

In fact, I also think that is the non self starters that online tutorials
reach. People who are generally unknowledgable and consider themselves
an unlikely candidate for learning such things, and certainly not likely
to even go about buying a book but who happen across an interesting web
site they can interact with and suddenly before they know it they have
learned something. After all, it's free.

Properly written online tutorials give users a chance to try their hand
at things-- RISK FREE. They don't risk money, and they don't risk of

Making good learning has it's cost
that is for sure. It's why our public school system sucks so bad, because
we generally do the most cost effective thing, which to date is to huddle
30 kids in a class room and make them sit down, and then watch a teacher
attempt to learn for them. (sorry off track)


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