What’s the Difference? Paper vs. Online Documentation

By Gretchen Herrick

Documentation can appear in a variety of forms. When you buy a computer product, hardware or software, it almost always comes with one or more manuals. In addition to the paper manual many times products will come with an online version of the documentation. With two forms of documentation one might ask what the difference between the two is, and which one is better.

First, one of the most common forms of paper documentation is a manual. Manuals describe how to install and operate the product. Online documentation is usually displayed on the screen instead on a piece of paper. One of the most common forms of online documentation is a help system. Most online help systems have the documentation embedded into the product. One example of an online help system is Microsoft’s Office Word. While typing a document in Word if a user wanted to figure out how to set a style to the first paragraph of their document, the user would click on Help, and type setting style in the assistance column. Another popular form of online documentation is online tutorials. Online tutorial documentation teaches a user how to use the product. Online documentation is not perfect and some complaints computer users have is that the documentation is hard to make out, but with advances in online documentation it becoming easier for users to access the specific information they need when they need it.

Secondly, which of the forms of documentation is better? Both forms of documentation sound really similar because they describe how to operate a product, and provide help to the user, but one seems to be easier to use and becoming more popular than the other. The more popular is online documentation. In fact many products that you buy today come with a quick start guide and the manual can be found online. There are several reasons why online documentation has become more popular. First, online documentation is more convenient. It does not require the user to store a manual, and look for it every time they need help. Also, Collier states, “online documentation is more usable, you don’t have to flip any pages, or even worse flip back and forth to a table of contents” (Collier 1998, 1).

Paper and online are not the only two forms of documentation, one form that is fairly new and growing is multimedia documentation. Baldasare defines multimedia documentation by stating, “Multimedia documentation is user information that includes text, graphic art, and any combination of time based media of sound, and animation, and video delivered by computer and providing users with opportunities for interaction”(Baldasare 1994,107). Multimedia documentation sounds similar to online documentation but one thing that distinguishes it from online is that it includes various forms of media, not just text or graphics on a screen. They also are typically livelier than online documents.

With so many forms of documentation the author must decide what form to use when analyzing the products audience. There are advantages and disadvantages to each form. It might be said that paper documentation is dated and that online and multimedia documentation are slowly gaining popularity because they are more lively, and easier to use.




John Baldasare, Marie T, Dumbra, Barbara C. Trevaskis, “Creating Easy-to-Use Documentation for Paper, Online, and Multimedia” http://www.stc.org/confproceed/1994/PDFs/PG107109.PDF.

Karen E. Collier. “Using Hardcopy Documentation in the Transition to Online Documentation,” http://www.stc.org/confproceed/1998/PDFs/00195.PDF.