Where’s the Paper Manual, Dammittt?!?!?

Article contributed by John McGhie

I wouldn’t mind a dollar for every time I see a question like the following, or a variation of it:

Why do they force us to buy add-on's to use a product without manuals when they have supported it with printed manuals in previous editions? They should make it easy for us to get good reference material to study before we turn on our computers. What about the first time user of this product? Wouldn’t they be totally lost getting started having to search the help screens. Am I missing something?

This question currently occurs more often in relation to Mac Office. Microsoft de-emphasized printed manuals from the Windows Office versions in Office 95. “De-emphasised” means they are there if you want them, but you have to buy them!

The reason is that the manuals are so large, and update so frequently, that they would substantially increase the cost of the product.

The benefits of putting all the information in the help file are:

  1. The information can be updated the day the product ships.
  2. The information can be updated after the product ships.
  3. You can retrieve the information in less than a tenth of the time it takes to find it in a paper manual.

Yes, that last one worried me too until I got used to it. The Natural Language Query system in the current Office products really does make looking up the help much faster and easier than to look in the manual. I have slowly changed over to using that as my primary information access method.

As an MVP, I obviously have to look up a lot of things, and frequently. I have not purchased any paper manuals since before Office 4.3. It's just not worth it. 

Unless you are a help author, you may not know how much information it takes to fully document MS Office. It's well over three thousand pages. The performance of paper manuals as information retrieval mechanisms falls off very sharply after they pass 200 pages.

Nobody has ever found a way to make a 3,000 page manual perform well: you want to know why, try using the New York phone book (do they still print one? The Sydney one is two volumes and 3,240 pages. Nobody ever looks in it. People say to me all the time “I was going to call you but I didn’t have your number. They simply look confused when I say It’s in the phone book!.

The reason is that people using software never want 100 pages of information. I answer most queries with two or three paragraphs of information. But that information can be three separate places in the 3,000 pages. Paper access methods never achieve the kind of access times I can live with.

Another reason MS dropped paper manuals is that the actual volume being purchased is so low that the price has gone through the roof. It costs roughly $11 million to produce a complete user manual set for MS Office: and that's to get the first copy. (3,000 pages per product for five products divided by 200 pages a year per person times $150,000 a year in salary plus on-costs per employee). It then costs about $10 per copy to make more. Only three or four hundred copies get sold; they should charge nearly 28 thousand dollars a copy to sell them at a profit. Surprisingly, there are very few users out there who want to pay 28 big ones for a set of manuals that don't do the job, so this is not exactly a profit centre.

As an old fart (I'm 53) and as a professional technical book author, I found it quite a culture shock to move to online access. That's why I relate so well to your frustration. However, now that I have changed over to online access, I would never go back. It's just too slow and frustrating.

The problem with paper manuals is that to get a book down to a manageable size, you have to leave information out. You do not have to do that with a help system, because nobody ever sees how big it is, and its size does not affect how well it works (unless it’s too small!). As modern products became more and more complex, more and more information was left out of the paper manuals. I always had an expectation that the basic information would be in the help file, and the in depth reference material would be in the paper manual.

That's no longer possible. The paper manual does not have enough room for any in-depth stuff. It's all in the help file. Nor can the paper manual ever get it up-to-date. There's about an 18-month lead-time on a 3,000 page manual. At the time you sit down to plan the content, something as basic as the product feature set is still undefined. When you begin to write, you do not yet know what’s in the shipping version, and what’s didn’t make the cut, or how people are supposed to use it. That information is typically not stable enough to write about until three months before the product hits the store shelves.

So I got sick of spending 15 minutes searching the paper manuals to find that the information about what I was looking for was non-specific waffle and generalities gleaned from the functional specification before the programmers began coding. Now, I turn to the help file knowing that the information can be directly corrected by the developer who wrote the module, on the day the product ships. And I can find what I am looking for in less than three seconds.

However, I am also aware that there is another issue connected with this question, and that is directly to do with new users. There are two kinds of new users these days: Those who have never used Microsoft Office, and Those who have never done this kind of thing before.

The first kind can be well-served with a carefully-planned help system. The second kind needs a paper manual. You see, they not only do not know how to use Office, but if they were to secretly admit it, they do not know how to do this job at all.

Microsoft Office is like all modern software: it is designed to be intuitive for people who are already expert in doing this job. And it succeeds. I can go from Windows to Mac, from Office to Corel Office to SmartSuite and be successful and productive in any of them. Because I have been writing professionally since 1973. I am already an expert in producing electronic documents that are reliable, maintainable, and fit for their purpose. I already know how to write books; what I want to do, and what I need to do it. If you know this already, Microsoft Office is the easiest of the lot to use. However, because it is the most powerful, it is also the most complex. If you do not yet know how to create electronic documents, the learning curve can be savage.

I pity people coming along after me in this industry. That kind of information just does not seem to be around these days. Nobody seems to write manuals about How to do your job anymore. When I retire, maybe I will write one. But you can't wait that long.

All I can suggest is that you hang around here. Ask whatever you want whenever you need to. That's what the MVP program is for. It enables you to ask very specific questions of people who are very highly specialized; who do exactly what you are trying to do, all day, for a living.

But I do understand that it is a culture shock. It did take me a couple of years to get used to it.