Tuesday Sep 06, 2011

Do You Need the Traditional "Book" Features in Online Documentation?

My primary job these days seems to be to ask the questions that nobody else will ask. Most technical documentation has been built upon a traditional book model. Whether we deliver the content in printed form or online, we continue to maintain that traditional model. Is that the right model to keep in the 21st century?

As technology changes, we change the formats in which we deliver our technical information. When we deliver information online, we have lots of "formats" - PDF, HTML, formatted for an iPhone, formatted for a Kindle, delivered from a help button in an application, and many others. When we create content in a structured environment (XML, SGML, and similar markup languages), it is relatively easy to deliver in any of those formats. However, we often miss the fact that some content does not "fit" a given delivery format.

I wonder about questions such as the following:

  • Do you read the Preface in an online technical "book?" The Preface often contains information such as Typographical Conventions and Audience descriptions. Is this information still useful in the 21st century for online technical information?
  • Do you use the "back-of-the-book" index in an online document? A lot of  people say that "everyone just uses search," but we are not entirely convinced that negates the need for a traditional index.

What are your thoughts on these two issues?

I could ask a very general question about what you need for online technical documentation in the second decade of the 21st century, but that's a longer discussion for a different post.

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Conversations about how people use information products, and sometimes other random thoughts.

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