Printed manuals or electronic documentation?
Last week, Matt Lorono, fcsuper of SW Legion wrote me an email. He wanted to talk about the lack of printed documentation from SW Corp. It has been a long time and a lot of people used to get fired up about this topic. I thought it was a great topic for a blog post, so what follows is a greatly expanded version of my email response to Matt. He also wrote a blog post on the topic, which you can read here.
The way I look at it, there are two sides to the “printed manuals” issue: paper books, and usable information.
I write printed books. I”ve also written classes for SolidProfessor. I”m secretly jealous of organizations like SolidProfessorwho write for electronic format, because they can make changes very quickly, and their distribution is cheap. My printed books take 3 months for the publisher to get together, print, bind, and distribute. Plus, it costs $3 to send one in the US, and 10x that to send to New Zealand. If I find a mistake in the book I can”t make a change for 2 years when the next edition comes out. This feels very old-tech compared to electronic formats.
I”m a bit of a book worm too, so I love a book in my hands, and reading is real enjoyment. I mean, I really enjoy the weight of the paper in my hands, the smell of the book. Sometimes to relieve the eye strain of staring at a computer all day, I read a book. Ok, that”s still eye strain, but its different.
The advancement of cultures used to be based on literacy level. These days, if it doesn”t entertain you automatically, no one is interested. No batteries? No wall plug? No wireless connection? On one hand I really resent the laziness of modern pop culture, but at the same time I”m a part of it. I”m on-line all day, I”m wireless, I”ve got a pocketful of gadgets where ever I go.
Sometimes I just want to go outside, sit under the tree, drink manually squeezed lemonade in a homemade hammock, swat flies and mosquitoes without chemical repellent, and read a real book. Dostoevsky or Mark Twain. Unplugged, off the grid, manual and gritty.
Other times I want info to be searchable, copy/pastable, screen shotable, surrounded by a bug zapping shield.
So yes, I really DO miss the printed manual, because it was something I could refer to and put sticky notes in, and take to the bathroom, and have on my desk for use while the software is up.
Printing a manual means translating it and printing it in 12 languages, and distributing it. And then changing it when the software changes. They already do this to the training manuals, and I know that writing a manual with the translation and distribution in mind (and doing it SW”s way) means that the level of material that you write goes way down.
Even the SW 2007 Bible was only translated into Chinese, and that probably because if we didn”t do it, someone else was going to bootleg it. Anyway, 1/3 of my sales came from the Chinese version, but I only made half per book of what I make on the English version because of the translation.
Further, the SW 2007 Bible isn”t available in electronic format at all because everyone (author and publishers) are afraid of it just being another freeload download. I”m all for openness of information, but I didn”t write that book for free, and I won”t give it away.
I got the chance to work on a SolidWorks official training manual, and see some of what happens behind the scenes. Translation puts huge impediments in the way of writing a complete and informative manual. Ironically, it is the non-print SW help that suffers the most due to this syndrome. The Help documentation is a spectacle of efficiency, and at the same time nearly useless. SW help is very rare on screen shots, and sparse on words. (Translators are paid by the word.) Screen shots of the interface are non-existent because you”d have to take screen shots in software installed in all languages. The Help is pathetic #1 because they tried to cut corners for translation and #2 because it was written by writers, not by people who understand CAD.
Of course why print anything at all if you don”t have content worth printing. The current (sw08) SW help files are not worth printing. Not by a long shot. But, kind of in the spirit of my Is SolidWorks in the mood for granting wishes? post, Jim Wilkinson has committed to better documentation because of some vocal blog visitors. Crappy documentation benefits me, because people have to either buy a book from me for $50 or go take a class for 10x or more. I”m looking forward to the documentation with 2009, because that would be the first opportunity for Jim”s new initiative to show results. Plus, it might leave me time to write about more interesting things than how the sketcher works.
As I see it we”ve got these two issues (writing for translation and writing by writers instead of experts), and we can”t solve the print/electronic issue until we solve the issue of having something fit to print in the first place. You can”t solve the translation issue without charging more for non-English versions of software and documentation. I want to say that again because it”s painfully obvious, and SW often has difficulty with the really obvious stuff:
You can”t solve the translation issue without charging more for non-English versions of software and documentation.
Personally, they have worn me down. I used to be a big proponent of a printed manual, but now I”ll just take the information in whatever format they can deliver it. And now, I might even lean a little the other way, because electronic data is more easily searched, and more quickly updated. On the downside electronic format is too easy to steal, which is a problem for paid books, but not for software manuals. Also, for me, I really dislike reading from a screen for long periods of time.
So there are pros and cons on both sides. I don”t believe we will ever see printed manuals again for software in our lifetimes. The people developing the software are too far divorced from old-tech techniques. The costs of educating users just seem like a waste to them. Notice the only print books SW creates are the ones for the training classes, and even those exist primarily to sell $400-$1500 classes, not for the sale of a single $60 book (aside from Rob Rodriguez”s new Photoworks book).
I want to lean toward publishing new information electronically like SolidProfessor. I must admit, though that I prefer the style of info delivery in a book, a narrative, rather than a video style. I personally don”t think that people absorb much from videos, and that they lack the inate ability to look at it again effortlessly that you get with print. People love what”s easy, but learning isn”t easy. Video lessons look like learning, but I think they have some evolving to do before they really teach much. Video is also no good for reference info.
The Kindle device seems like a good answer, but staring at a screen isn”t on my list of things I want to do more of. Plus, the thing costs $400 plus media.
Anyway, how many more conflicting points of view can one person have? I”m attracted to both electronic and print publishing. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. When it comes to these large impersonal corporations, the cost factor is going to be what wins the day, and that is clearly the electronic side of things. It”s not an entirely bad option, and makes at least some sense business-wise.
How about you?