Now you have heard it from this source before but it bears repeating – the disappearance of almost all printed documentation is one of the troubling trends in software marketing and deployment. The swing is distinctly to all electronic and a great deal of that Web based. There is a convergence going on in software help systems and its just in time and online. I would suggest a better strategy is a balance of offline and/or online keyed to what the users discretion and usage indicate.
I have been reviewing diverse software from Adobe Photoshop CS (congratulations for still great printed manuals and quick reference cards along with ever improving active program and online/offline help) to Sun Java Studio Creator (a good printed getting started book mixed with good active program documentation and the most complete documentation available online only) to MySQL (good active program help; but best available as Acrobat online or dowloadable for offline use). There must be over a thousand systems in the past 20 years in between. Let me explain why I like the approach that Adobe is taking.
First and foremost, Adobe realizes its in a business where getting the most out of its software equals competitive advantage. Small wonder that Adobe is able to charge a premium price for its software. True, many times Adobe has one of the best pieces of software in the field; but not always as in the first try at Acrobat Designer. A key to Adobe s success is that it actively supports both online and offline documentation in remarkably appropriate amounts. This means that the core Adobe product is completely covered in all aspects in a printed user guide/reference manual often exceeding 300 pages. Frequently there is also a handy printed reference card. There is offline supplimentary documentation in Acrobat, Flash animation and/or video format showing specialized aspects of the software. There is an ever improving active help system. But the core of the system can be learned from offline and printed sources.
Adobe also integrates across documentation media. The printed manuals refer to electronic offline and online resources. And vice versa – not as much as to be desired, but often well ahead of the competition. Adobe also innovates with its active program help. Adobe Photoshop Elements has a learning center including help topics that guide users step by step through a particular task including mouse click convenent help buttons that perform the requested action for you ( the next time through the help cycle I start doing most of the steps myself – thats called self-learning). Adobe Photoshop CS has made these HowTo help topics user customizable and/or creatable – so users or IT organizations can create their own special HowTo active program help.
Also Adobe does not scrimp on its online help. That is useful not just for existing users but also for prospective users or upgraders – they can see the exact nature of the functionality and help that Adobe will provide for their programs. The online help has many Acrobat files so they can be downloadede and used as offline electronic help. But as well there are Flash and/or video animations and good old fashioned white papers. Equally, important, Adobe programs Help menus point directly to these online help resources. In addition, the Help points to online updates resources as well. In sum, I think of Adobe systems as consistently providing me with just as much help as I need and well balanced in the formats I need them – online, offline and printed. No small feat these days for software vendors.