Documentation: Moving from Paper to Pixels

By Susan Hendley

As the world becomes a “paperless society,” it’s no surprise the technical communication field is a large part of this trend. In the last ten years, there has been a major change in the medium used to present software documentation. In the past, technical writers produced voluminous user manuals to teach users about software. Now if users want printed documentation, they will have to pay a hefty price to get it; some books cost $50 or more. This is because documentation has moved to a sleeker form: online documentation.

Part of the reason for this transition is the growth of personal computers (PC’s) and the Internet. People are using computers and the Internet more and more to communicate with coworkers or friends, to type reports, and to handle complex business functions, such as accounting and order placement. This expanded use of computers creates a new medium for presenting documentation. 

In addition to the proliferation of PC’s, online documentation has evolved because it is cheaper for companies to produce. Online documents do not have the expensive printing and binding costs associated with printed documents (Wentorf, 2001). In addition, companies save money because there are no shipping costs.

Online documents are also easier to update because they can be revised later in the development process (Wentorf, 2001). Since these documents do not have to be printed, they can be developed at the same time as the product. In contrast, printed documents must be completed before a product is released because they need extra time to be printed.

This change in medium not only benefits developers, but also users of documentation. According to Wentorf (2001), online documentation has many benefits that include:

     Online search capabilities: This allows users to find information through key word searches.
Cross-referencing tools: Online documents typically have links to other related topics.
Instant access from anywhere: Online documents are accessible as long as an Internet connection.
Availability to multiple users: Multiple users can simultaneously access the online documents.
Dynamic graphics capabilities: Users can include interactive graphics and animations.


With all of these advantages to both the users and developers of software documentation, one might think that all forms of documentation are being turned into online documents; however, this is not happening yet. According to William Horton (as cited in Jones, 1997) some documents do not work well online. These include documents that require detailed reading, legal documents, and documents that are needed away from the computer.

Because of this, it is unclear if we will ever become a truly “paperless society.” Online documents do have new features that paper documents could never provide; however, there is still a market for paper documents. Many people are used to working with paper documents so online documents may seem foreign or difficult to use. As people become more accustomed to online documents and as computer technology continues to evolve more documentation may be created for online use. For now, it seems online documents will continue to proliferate the documentation field, but they will not make paper documents obsolete in the near future.


Jones, C. (1997). Finding the best mix of paper and online documentation: A case study. STC Proceedings 418. Retrieved October 10, 2004, from

Wentorf, D. (2001, October). Printed pages vs. web pages: The documentation dilemma. In: Proceedings of the 29th annual ACM SIGUCCS conference on User services 204-206. Retrieved October 10, 2004, from ACM Digital Library database.