The Evolution of Documentation: Making the Move From Paper to Online Delivery

By Jessica Rheaume

With the advancement of technology comes the advancement of documentation.  No more searching through page after page of blurred text to find what you are looking for.  It is now possible to jump online and type in exactly what you need, with the answer on your screen in seconds.  This is all well and good, but there are still improvements to be made. “The current generation of online information leaves much to be desired from the perspective of the end-user” (Hackos 1997, 99).

Joanne Hackos, President of ComTech services Inc., says that there are two major problems that arise.  The first being, that some organizations simply put their old manuals online.  Second, other organizations construct the online help without knowledge of the product or users expectations (Hackos, 99).

Effective documentation should focus on the user.  This means that the technical writers should be involved in the process.  They should be observing and getting first hand information of what the users need to know, and how best to explain it. The documentation should also focus on troubleshooting. Users want to be able to ask, “What happened?”, when something goes wrong and get an immediate answer (Hackos, 103).

Online documentation is meant to make help systems better. Ideally we should be able to find exactly what we are looking for right away, and have the help system be one step ahead of us, willing to teach us how to correct mistakes.  This kind of system becomes rare when companies simply transfer documentation written for paper onto an online system.  “The next generation of online help and other forms of electronic information delivery provide us with an opportunity to completely rethink how end users learn to use software to do their jobs” (Hackos, 99).  Hackos believes that we can solve many problems including: providing information that is more useful, less frustrating, less voluminous, and less expensive, simply by employing the services of experienced online documenters that use the principals of minimalist design (99).

Minimalist design has a few simple rules. (1) Focus on the users needs. (2) Ensure ease of access to the right information. (3) Provide just the right words and graphics to ensure successful performance. (4) Emphasize troubleshooting and correcting mistakes. (5) Provide for both novice and expert users through layering. Even when following this approach, however, information designers must still work closely with users to ensure proper document design.

To develop this proper design, documenters must meet the actual users.  Documenters need to see the users in their work environment (or the environment in which they will be using the system), listen to the users and answer specific concerns and questions that the user has, and be able to get into the users head, so to speak, and be able to see the program from the users point of view. This approach may take more effort, but in the long run, it is this process that will ensure that the online help system is actually helping, and doing so at a level of technology that today’s world embraces.



Hackos, J.T. 1997. "Online Documentation: The Next Generation." SIGDOC.