E-documentation not very useful

Last week, to my great joy, I received an immense box from a vendor containing an anxiously awaited toy: A new backup unit for the server at our site.

Scrambling through the carton, I removed suitable amounts of packing material and bits and pieces, and found a lonely plastic envelope containing a CD-ROM and a couple of pieces of paper.

Those bits of paper were the sum total of the written documentation for the beast. The rest was on the CD, and online. And it wasn’t exactly world-class.

What’s become of real documentation? You know, the kind that tells you what to do, what ought to happen (sometimes even with pictures or drawings), and explains how to correct things if they go awry. The kind that you can scribble in when the text isn’t clear so you remember what you really should type or which button to press. The kind that ultimately bristled with scraps of paper or Post-It flags marking important tidbits you’d found. The kind with a usable index, and a list of error codes and their meanings.

In their quest to save money, vendors have virtually eliminated this most useful of tools. Actually, many have virtually eliminated useful information, even in their electronic documentation. There are few things more frustrating than going to online help simply to find what amounts to a repetition of the menu structure of an application. We can read menus, thank you – we’re looking at the help because the menus weren’t enough.

Yes, it costs to print a manual – it has to be published, packed and shipped. A CD is lighter and takes up less space, and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper to produce.

But just try configuring a device while juggling a laptop displaying the docs on CD that explain the process. It’s impossible to scrawl a note on a screen (unless you have a tablet PC, of course, and the documentation software allows it – and many tablet PCs don’t even have CD drives). It’s tricky to flip back and forth from page to page, and following an online link to those pesky error codes may be impractical sometimes. And how do you consult the docs for a system that has failed, if the only way to access them is on a functioning system?

You’ve got to wonder what planet some of the vendors’ marketing folks are on.

Some of these marketers have told me that providing “soft” documentation is a way to improve customer service; it’s infinitely simpler to keep online or CD-based documentation up-to-date. Good point, but if that is the fact, why do my drive’s online docs consistently refer to a menu item that doesn’t exist? Do I have the new and improved docs with a less improved device, or vice versa?

Others have suggested that a fat manual is intimidating to the user. Why it is less intimidating when reduced to a PDF file on a CD eludes me. Maybe the reader goes cross-eyed before realizing how big it is.

I printed the pertinent chapter of the documentation (on my printer, with my paper and consumables – maybe the vendor isn’t so dumb after all). It’s sitting on top of the drive, well annotated and ready for use. The CD has been filed away.

Lynn Greiner is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
lynng@ca.inter.net

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