Wish list for academic research

Subject: Wish list for academic research
From: "Elna Tymes" <etymes -at- lts -dot- com>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Sun, 26 Sep 1999 18:43:58 -0700


There are a number of academic folks who use this list regularly, and I am glad
to see that they find the practical experience of us in the trenches valuable
their students. However now I want to turn the tables and ask the academics for
some help.

Over and over again in the last couple of years I've run up against a need to
justify some point or another about documentation and online help and other
things I classify as "information resources." I've wailed in the past about the
paucity of hard, numbers-based research on how people use online help, and I
that I'm up against it again: where are there academically-defensible studies
showing how different categories of users actually use the information resources

we're creating for them? For instance, is there a study that says, definitively,

that Unix system admins won't use online Help even if one is created for them?
there a difference (perhaps because of the way they learn things) between Unix
and - say - NT system admins in this area? Yet again I've run up against a
marketing type who made the blanket statement "System admins don't use online
help." I didn't have enough hard data to support or refute him. (I have PLENTY
anecdotal evidence - it seems just about everyone has an opinion on this. But
a huge difference between numbers-based conclusions and the logical leap of "I
thus-and-so" to "Users tend to prefer thus-and-so.")

So I propose a new topic for this list: A wish list for research projects to be
done by the academics who use this list. I propose that these projects be done
in ways that the rest of us can read and then point to as we move through the
process of proposing various kinds of documentation to engineering companies. I
particularly want to see some rigor to these studies, as opposed to the
information that all of us are quick to use when nothing else applicable is

And my first nomination is this: How do different categories of users actually
use information resources available to them? I'd like this study to look at
programmers, system admins, and garden-variety users, and I'd like to know about

hard-copy manuals generated by a software company, third-party books, online
manuals (in .pdf form, usually, and stored either on a web site that one can
access or on a CD-ROM, or both), online Help systems, and man pages. If the
study finds other kinds of information resources (excluding, of course, the
proverbial 'guy down the hall') I'd like to know about them too.

I have a second nomination, too: Assuming the usefulness of online help systems,

how much of the principles of good web page design apply to online help page

Elna Tymes
Los Trancos Systems

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