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Printing A Read-Through Guide

Jack Bellis, 2006, Originally Published March 1996
Article on the STC Chapter Site

Synopsis: Now that most information is presumed to be available online, whether remotely or otherwise, spending the time to format printed guides is an issue. The answer, now as it was 10 years ago is the same: The best user value is provided by providing "book format" for only up to 70 pages... little enough that it can be read in a sitting. Provide the rest—everything actually—online.

To print or not to print... is that really the question? On my three most recent technical writing projects, all documenting Windows business software, the question has arisen, "Which portion of the product information should be printed and which should go online?" This article will suggest an answer.

What is the real issue?

The issue is not whether paper books are better than online help. Both have their strengths. But the higher cost of printing has forced many companies to transfer the burden of printing to the customer. A hidden factor in this high cost is the practice that has developed over time of providing verbiage about every single feature of a program. The backlash is the increasing trend to print little or nothing.

Rather than resorting to minimization, however, manufacturers should be seeking the strategy that takes the greatest advantage of both methods. The win-win view of the issue then is this: "Of all the information about the product, which portion provides the maximum benefit for the manufacturer to offer as a high-quality, printed document?" The answer starts with an examination of the key strengths of the two methods.

Strengths of paper and electronic documentation

When reading more than a few sentences, print is easier to read than a monitor. When the amount becomes pages, the portability of paper is a decisive advantage, allowing you to read where and when you want. Electronic documentation, on the other hand, can provide instantaneous access to relevant information. Another distinguishing strength of online information is that wherever there's a computer, there's access to information. Many other factors distinguish the two methods, but it all boils down to this: for reading, paper is better; for reference information, good online help is far more powerful than paper.

Put all of the information online

The first part of my recommendation is that your electronic media should include every bit of the product information. It should contain your getting started information, tutorials, guides, reference books and cards, marketing info, and troubleshooting. Information costs everyone a huge amount of money--failing to make it accessible is bad business. If some of the information is sensitive, protect it or the system to which it refers with passwords, but don't solve the problem by minimizing its distribution.

Print a short read-through guide

The second part of my recommendation is to print an introductory book of up to 75 pages, with the highest possible quality. I suggest 75 pages because I believe that's the most any reader is likely to read in a continuous effort, even over the course of a few days. This is based on my own surveying of computer users and my own experience. I've never found anyone who has read most of any user guide.

I suggest that we start referring to this introductory printed matter as a "read-through." The closest word we currently have is "guide," but there are guides of 1,000 pages out there. No one reads them through! Delivering them on paper adds questionable value. Worse, they are a disservice because they intertwine vital concepts with information that can be learned later from the product itself.

A read-through should contain a conceptual introduction to your system--information that is key to understanding the way the system is meant to be used. This is often called "theory of operation." Alternatively, you might say that this section describes how your business processes map to the computer system. A read-through should describe the major features of the system and generalizations about its use, particularly concepts that might be counter-intuitive.

The read-through I am suggesting is different from the minimal documentation that some packages now ship as a getting started booklet; those booklets rarely discuss vital concepts. Let's look at some examples of information I think should be in printed read-throughs:

  • Microsoft Word stores its paragraph formatting information in the marks at the end of paragraphs. This is the type of information that every new user must be told. A read-through is the ideal vehicle.

  • Corel Photo-Paint has great features called objects and masks--features I need to use--but whose use is unlike any of the simple bitmap editors I've used. An overview of the design premise must be accessible without wading through all of the reference information, as I had to do with the online help.

  • A system for managing railroad cars represents the physical world in carefully-structured layers of data, on which your entire understanding of the system is based. There are locations, facilities, junctions, segments, routes, and so on. The assumptions of such a scheme must be in a read-through.

  • An imaging system on which I worked had 17 books. For such a large system I would print a read-through for each key user: business manager, administrator, clerk, and integration programmer.

Value and consensus

We need to discuss these ideas as a community and continue to fine-tune our strategies as individuals and teams. By segregating the key information in short read-throughs, and providing all information online, we can provide the best, readable, documentation and get the best value for our printing dollar.

By Jack Bellis, Technical Writer and Multimedia Developer
Integrated Systems Consulting Group
(Wayne, Pennsylvania)

Originally published in News & Views March, 1996 issue.

Revisionist History


"My interest in usability arose from the pain and tears of patching the wounds of suffering interface designs with the inadequate bandages of help files and user guides." — Daniel Cohen

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