Where Have All the Manuals Gone?


By Kevin Sanderfoot


Where have all the manuals gone? There once was a time, not long ago, when computer software used to come packaged with booklets and manuals covering every aspect of the program. Now software comes in CD cases, and sometimes you’re lucky if the case even says what the program actually does.


Documentation has changed in the past ten to fifteen years, from predominantly printed materials to online documentation and help files and tutorials imbedded in software programs. The change isn’t solely based on documentation itself. An increasingly computer literate society and improvements in product design and usability have rendered the need for some documentation unnecessary. For instance, software can now pretty much install itself and if not, a help window appears on screen to guide the user through the process when the computer detects new software.


What caused this change?


The evolution of hypertext in the early 1990s played a role. Hypertext allowed writers more freedom in organizing documents, by no longer enforcing the page-by-page, word-by-word restrictions of other media (Horton, 1991). Hypertext allowed writers to shape documentation around information rather than forcing information to fit the documentation.


Cost and production expenses also played a part. The cost of printed materials increased and competition forced many in the industry to examine their budgets, including the cost of user documentation and customer support (Millar, 1998). Reducing printed documents is one way of cutting costs; but saving money is not, by itself, sufficient reason to eliminate product manuals.


Horton (1993) wrote about the right and wrong reasons for eliminating paper documentation. The right way, as Horton described, is by making products obvious. That is to say, easy enough for people to figure out on their own. The next step is to then make documentation electronic and an integral part of the product, not supplemental part.


But perhaps the biggest reason for the change to document delivery is the fact that people just don’t use the manuals and documentation that has been written. Think about what you do when you have questions about software. Do you find the manual and look up the answer? Do you ask someone for help?  Do you try different things in the program until you find what you’re looking for? Chances are you probably do one of the later two. But why is it?


Millar (1998) wrote about observing software use in a hospital. She noticed that no one used manuals, in fact she didn’t even see any; so she asked someone where all the manuals were. She was led to an office where all the manuals were sitting neatly and untouched on a shelf. If anyone had questions about a program, they called the sales person who sold them the software. People want answers immediately. They don’t want to waste their time, or feel as though they’re wasting their time looking through manuals for answers.


“The need for paper documents will not vanish overnight,” though, wrote Horton (1993). “It will gradually diminish over the coming years and decades as we become as skilled in using the product as a communication medium as we are in creating paper documentation” (p. 34). Looking back at the last eleven years since Horton made this prediction; it’s hard to argue against him.







Horton, W. (1991, February).  Is hypertext the best way to document your product? An assay for designers.  Technical Communication.  20-29.


Horton, W. (1993, February).  Let’s do away with manuals…before they do away with us.  Technical Communication.  26-34.


Millar, C.  (1998, May).  Making manuals obsolete: getting information out of the manual and into the product.  Technical Communication.  161-167.