Re: Wish list for academic research

Subject: Re: Wish list for academic research
From: "Eric J. Ray" <ejray -at- raycomm -dot- com>
To: Elna Tymes <etymes -at- lts -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 28 Sep 1999 06:48:34 -0700

Elna Tymes wrote:
> 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
> anecdotal
> information that all of us are quick to use when nothing else applicable is
> available.

Great idea, _particularly_ the part about rigor. There's a crying need
for independent, academically defensible studies that really tell us
something about, for example, how readers use help. So many
people--even those who should, in my opinion, know better--fall back to
the old stereotypes and assumptions that seem to have no real
basis in fact, and at the very least aren't based on research in the
Web era.

> 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.

And I'll even go so far as to set up a proposed methodology. Set up a computer
with a few conceptually familiar but relatively obscure programs
(StarOffice would be good if it were to be done this week), grab 100
random people from the street, and turn them loose to learn to DO
something. Then do it again in a different town, and again at Comdex, and
on a university campus, then again in San Jose, then again in Kalamazoo,
and so forth. _ANALYZE_, interpret, and publish the results. Don't
_ask_ what they do--watch them. Don't study 5 people you found in an
Internet cafe, or 5 people from Barnes and Noble, or 5 people from this
list and call it a study, though...

Why? Because nobody knows--REALLY KNOWS--if Jane Average User on the street
ever really uses Help. Or the manual. Or anything. And we certainly have
no idea under what circumstances she clicks on help versus asks Sarah versus
reads the manual versus calls tech support.

Perhaps there are published studies that I'm unaware of...I hope so.
Perhaps there are unpublished studies that someone can share...
but as far as I know, there's nothing of substance out there.

Other possible topics include...
Under what circumstances do which types of users access online help?
Does anyone consider an online manual an adequate substitute for
hardcopy? In opinion? In practice? Who and under what circumstances?
How do people use the Web for technical reference, and how can Web pages
and support sites be tailored for better information access?


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