Printed and online documentation trade-offs

This article explains the relative merits of printed documentation and online documentation from a usability perspective.

First, we discuss the different types of user. Next, we discuss typical printed documentation and online documentation with respect to the user types. Finally, we show the relative merits of printed documentation and online documentation for different user types.

User types

The table shows typical users and their needs. Each category is applicable to both the operating system and to the software (or rather, its subject matter). For example, an expert who is using your software for the first time possibly has no experience of Windows.

Types of user and their typical needs
User type Comment
Absolute beginners Require handholding, no assumptions, simple step-by-step instructions. Many pictures. Only one method of achieving a required result.
Novice Require handholding, no or few assumptions, simple step-by-step instructions (but less detail than absolute beginners). Encouragement to learn alternative methods.
Competent Require brief reminders, explanations of options, alternatives, comparisons with other methods.
Advanced Require brief reminders, trade-offs, alternatives, minimum text and few screen shots. Unusual functions, oddities, shortcuts.

Typical printed documentation

Examples of printed documentation
Type Typical Users Advantages and disadvantages to users
Reference manual Advanced Typically uses structural description. Usually focuses on how and what to do, not why. Most material is rarely used, but it must be available.
Introduction / Welcome guide All Useful for setting the context. Usually redundant as soon as the user is familiar with the software.
User guide Beginner, competent To be useful to novices, must set the context, and make everything clear. No or few assumptions, and therefore, quite verbose. Possibly, quickly becomes redundant.
Quick reference / Checklist Competent, advanced Compact. Users must know what they want to do before they can use these.

Typical online documentation

Examples of online documentation
Type Typical Users Advantages and disadvantages to users
Online manual Novice, competent, advanced Easy to search on keywords (but not concepts). Those users who want a paper copy must print one themselves.
Context-sensitive help (window-level) Novice, competent, advanced Typically, when a user calls the help, the help topic explains the functions of the buttons and entry boxes in the dialog box or window from which the help was called. This is excellent for reference information, but it is not particularly useful for getting the global picture.

A large problem is that one procedure typically uses many dialog boxes, and sometimes, one dialog box is used in many procedures. Additionally, help topics are necessary to explain processes, procedures, and concepts. Usually, the help topics cannot be context sensitive.

Popup help (What's This? help, field-level help) Novice, competent, advanced Sometimes, useful as a short reminder. However, it is sometimes a waste of time. Typical example: an entry box says 'Name' and the help says 'Enter the name here'. Bad for explaining the general picture. Information must be duplicated in Help Topics window or HTML-based help, because otherwise it is difficult to print many items.
Online video Novice, competent Shows users how, but needs to be good quality and clear. (Implementation requires considerable memory.) Operations must be slow. Useful for beginners, but probably not as good for advanced users, because a sequence of menu options is faster to read. Mouse clicks and keyboard entry of non-printing characters is not explicit.
Computer-based training (CBT) Novice Useful in training environments where users do not expect to do useful work. Possibly, persuading users to use the material is difficult.

Relative merits of printed documentation and online documentation

A comparison of the attributes of printed documentation and online documentation
Attribute Comment
Portability Major advantage of printed over online is that it is portable.
Availability Major advantage of online is that it is always available to all users whenever they want the documentation (except if the computer system itself is not available). Online is not always practical: installation instructions and release notes must be available before software is installed.
User friendliness Depends on user preferences. Ideally, documentation is for both users who want online documentation, and for users who want printed documentation. Many users will print the documentation, and then read the printed documentation. That printing can be seen as dumping a production problem on the user.
Ease of use Online is excellent for brief reminders, but not good for extended explanations (that is, anything more than a few paragraphs). Most users are familiar with books. Some users are not familiar with online help.

If the online help is in a separate window from the application, the help can be hidden when the user does a procedure. If the help is always on top, it can get in the way of performing the procedure. With small screens, this will always be a problem.

Ease of use also depends on a user's subjective feelings and preferences about documentation.

A general problem with online help is that absolute beginners will not know how to use it.

Readability Reading paper is approximately 30% faster than reading from screen. For a given size of text, paper is clearer than online. Online documentation is not good for extensive reading.
Cross-referencing Online is much faster (click on link instead of look up page). Tends to be more links (cross-references) in online than on paper. Users can lose their location in the document structure.
Accessibility of content No difference for people with a full range of abilities. However, people with visual problems can increase the size of text or use screen readers, so online is better for them.

The ability to search an online document does not always increase the ability to find information, although it can increase the speed for indexed terms. An index is as useful in online material as it is in printed documentation, because a keyword search is not sufficient.

A table of contents is required in both cases to the show general structure of information.

See also

Relative costs of printed and online documentation

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