Dumping the manual

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.

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Two thoughts:

1. Some devices *require* a printed manual, e.g. medical devices sold in Europe.

2. I am much happier having a printed manual for our rice cooker, microwave oven, etc. than I would be having to bring a laptop into the kitchen.

But that said (okay, a third thought), I agree that there are probably more printed manuals being produced than there need to be. I’m not sure, though, whether search really “trumps” either TOCs or indexes; it would depend on what you mean by “trump” and how we would test for it.

1. Obviously. My experience is with software documentation, should’ve stated that.

2. Yes, as you’ve stated in point 1. Some devices SHOULD have printed manuals.

I will try and track down some sources, but I do remember reading some surveying which said that people will use search first, then the index, then the table of contents (if no other options are available). I’d heard similar anecdotal comments to that effect too.

It’s also backed up by experience, working in software, WITH software. You get stuck, you ask someone then.. Google (search). If that takes me to a resource which has a local search, I (and I’ve seen co-workers do this) will then search the resource (if it wasn’t exposed to Google, which our docs aren’t).

Brian Harris says:

Well said, Gordon. Good article.

Cecily says:

I’m pretty sure Matthew Ellison asserts that most people use search/find before an index, and he probably has figures to back it up. I know that I rarely use an index.

Consequently, I’m happy dumping the index. A poor one is useless, a good one takes a lot of time and search/find can and should be better.

However, I remain attached to the TOC, both as a writer and reader: I like to see the shape and structure of the information.

Cecily, I agree that a TOC can be useful, and probably good as a backup route for navigation. Some people do READ documentation of course!

Hi Gordon,

Interesting post, thanks.

I like having a hard copy of a manual for simple devices, because the search-space is fairly small. But for everything else (DVD player upwards), internet search is the first port of call. So I guess it depends on the volume of information available in the hard copy, or how easily (visually?) searchable it is (poor labelling, lots of dense text, unhelpful TOC or index …) I once tried and failed to get information about the gearing in a rental car from the manual that accompanied it. You’d think that’d be pretty basic, but the index just wasn’t constructed with that in mind (presumably because the person(s) who wrote the manual had never considered that gearing might be an issue for someone who wasn’t them. The Curse Of Knowledge strikes again 😉

Of course, even internet search is only as smart as the searcher, just as the TOC/index is only as smart as the writer … 😉



Cecily says:

I’ve jsut seen TOC-less software help for the first time, and even though I knew what it was, my initial reaction was still one of “OMG, what do I do now?”. It looked like a website rather than a help system. Obviously that would abate with familiarity, and once I found a topic, it looked more like help. There was a breadcrumb trail, but I still disliked the lack of context.

Breadcrumbs only show you one branch, whereas a TOC can show all of them.

Every week for at least 2 years, I’ve bought my groceries online. Often I just type the name of the specific item I want, which is fine, but if browsing I’m still infuriated (years later) that you can only drill down specific paths, and I suppose that’s similar to the TOC-less help.

Am I too tied to the old, or is it likely to be a problem for other users? Research required…


Good point about context, I share the same experience. I will usually search but browsing, and knowing which larger area I am within when doing so, also yields results (and aids learning as opposed to problem solving).

Scott, Yeah I read that post. And for finding AN answer then chaos is fine 🙂 Perhaps that loses us the opportunity to teach as well though? (as I said above)

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