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Manuals, Technical Notes, Movies, Doh!

January 15, 2008


What kind of supporting documentation do you prefer to follow when you attempt to learn a new piece of software?

The inspiration for my last post on Ease of Use came from a discussion I had with my colleague Arvin Moser. Arvin has spent many years with ACD/Labs as a Technical Support Specialist for ACD/Labs and is now an Application Scientist. Arvin knows the learning curve of ACD/Labs software very well.

Following my post last week Arvin and I continued an interesting discussion about user manuals and their usefulness. Arvin was kind enough to summarize our conversation for me and here it is:

Ask anyone who buys a piece of software for their computer whether they feel better that software comes with a manual and chances are everyone will say YES. The thought of having a manual is
like a security blanket in case things go bad.

Since there are so many variations of manuals, let me list what I deem to be a manual, or at least what I’ve seen that comes with a piece of software. There are the instruction manuals, the tutorials, the guides, and reference manuals. They can be stored on a DVD, online and/or in hardcopy form. Online manuals are a convenient way for those users who cannot seem to find older or lost manuals. Electronic manuals have the advantage of allowing key word searching and thus narrow done the bit of information you really need.

Taking it a step further, how many people actually spend the time to read the manual? I doubt that number would be very high especially if it spans more than 20 pages. Most people like to install software and run with it. How many people do you know that have read the manuals that come with Microsoft Excel 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2007? Not a very exciting read, I’m sure.

To simplify matters, many pieces of software come with a quick guide sheet that holds the crucial instructions on a single piece of paper. Not bad and probably the easiest thing a computer company can do to help out its users.

How about those people who do not like to read or can’t read? Then what? Movies are a great way to teach visually what sometimes cannot be easily explained with words and diagrams. Interactive
movies add the benefit of enabling viewers to test what they learn without messing up the software directly. Other things that come to mind are word of mouth from an expert user (i.e. Live Help, technical support, user forums, and on-site or online training sessions.
In a society built on diversity, the key seems to be to provide venues to satisfy as many people as possible.

There are so many possibilities. Let me pose this question:

Should a company that produces software offer all these facets?

What facet do you prefer?

Feel free to add your comments on the blog. 

4 Replies to “Manuals, Technical Notes, Movies, Doh!”

  1. Regarding “Microsoft Excel 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2007”. I don’t think Microsoft have delivered manuals for years…just help files. Manuals are now for third parties to write. Personally I buy manuals for most software I use. I DO like it as a reference. Also, movies are good but they need to be updated as fast as the software or they become confusing when the interface is different from the what I am working with. A technical forum is great. I’m watching a few out there right now and find them very useful.

  2. Thanks for the comments.
    I agree that technical forums are terrific. When I do a google search for software (or other) problems those are the first sources I hit up.
    The key to technical forums, in my opinion is a good group of power users who are not associated with (nor work for) the software company. They seem to really drive these forums. Not always, but often.

  3. I prefer a mix of technical notes, practical examples, movies and electronic manuals. The point is thesy all have their strengths and weaknesses and people have different preferences. Essentially they have to be well written, clear and precise, short as possible and for people like me simple as possible

  4. Thanks for your comments Malcolm.
    A mix is ideal and I think that’s what we try to offer. Alas, there are so many different applications and workflows to highlight and not enough bodies to write, record, and produce them!
    Short is the ideal because people don’t want to read a 40 page document or watch a 7 minute movie. They can make better use of their time.


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