Documentation, printed or online?

Sue Woolley
by Sue Woolley

One of my first jobs in the IT industry was working at the Australian National University Computer Centre as the “Consultant Programmer”. Wonderful title, these days I would probably be called the Help Desk Manager.

My job was to assist staff and research students when they had problems using the Univac 1100/80 mainframe computer. To help me, I had several shelves of very, very technical printed Univac manuals which I had to delve into on a regular basis. The users had no access to these manuals, and even if they did, they would probably have been too technical to help them in any way.

Today, my shelves are empty of manuals. In fact my computer screen is sitting on a pile of old Word and Acrobat reference books!

Nowadays most software documentation is online, either on a web page or embedded into the product as context-sensitive help. A lot of documentation is available for viewing on smartphones and tablets as well as traditional computers, and Mr Google is nearly always able to answer even the most obscure questions.

So, in 2015, should we be producing printed documentation at all?

I would argue that there are still circumstances where a printed manual or instructions are invaluable:

  • For example, when I am out in the wilderness somewhere working out how to make the waterfall look smoky in the photograph I am about to take, having my camera manual on the internet or on a CD is not going to cut it.
  • Also, can you imagine trying to put together your IKEA wardrobe without the printed instruction sheet – you would need three hands to hold the phone with the instructions, the Allen key and the bits of wardrobe you are trying to put together. Not a happy thought!
  • And what about your car manual? Not often needed, but again, if you are out in the middle of nowhere, it could be the difference between getting to the next town for some professional help or sitting in the car for hours waiting for the RACV to turn up.

I think that software documentation manuals very rarely need to be printed now, the theory being that if you are using software, you are in front of a computer anyway and so can access the information online. However, there are many other areas where a printed manual is still the best option.

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