I honestly can’t remember the last time I picked up a user manual, an honest-to-god paper book of technical documentation. Actually that’s a lie, it was just last week when i was tidying up. I picked up several user manuals and moved them to a lower shelf on my bookcase.
It’s also been a long time since I last worked for a company that produce and printed user manuals but that’s more to do with my career path than any decisions I made within those companies.
Even now whilst we have a “documentation set” comprising several different user manuals, it’s published to PDF and made available as part of the product distribution (and also online).
So why do we still maintain this view of how information should be provided?
There is a level of comfort in having a table of contents and a structure to the information available when writing technical information. It allows you to make sure all the required information is in place, but most of the research I’ve read, and most of the anecdotal evidence I’ve heard, suggests that those lovingly created table of contents are not heavily used.
The index is another area, hell it’s another profession altogether, that we spend a lot of time crafting and rightly so as it is used by many people to navigate their way through a document.
But one thing that trumps both of these methods isn’t available in printed documents but is widely available for online information. Search.
OK, so none of what I’m saying is new, or revolutionary, far from it. Those of us who have been creating online help, regardless of the format (a lot of which was before the internet was popularised), know that if there is a search option available, it will be used.
With that in mind, and this is most definitely something we will be consulting with our users about, we are toying with the idea of dumping the index and the table of contents, making sure the content has a good set of internal reference links so users (power and novice alike) can find “paths” through the information, and switching the front page to be a Google-esque search.
Luckily we can pilot this approach whilst still producing the Javahelp, PDFs and HTML (Webhelp in Author-it terms) output so we don’t completely alienate our users. It’ll be interesting to see outcome.