August 1998
Future Docs, Part I
How Many Trees Must a Manual Cut Down?

by PAUL D. LEHRMAN
ILLUSTRATION: TK YANG

Where are you reading this? Are you in your living room, having a quiet catch-up on your magazine stack after supper? Are you in your studio with your feet up, keeping one eye on the computer screen as you burn the day's work onto CD-ROM? Are you in the smallest room of the house, hiding from the family, performing two functions-input and output-at the same time? Maybe you're at the beach, in a park with the kids or on an airplane. Or perhaps you're online, staring at your monitor as the words scroll down the page of your browser. Or are you in your car, listening to my words on your built-in ASCII-to-speech converter? (Oh, you haven't got one of those yet? You will...)

When it comes to reading magazine articles, these days you have lots of choices about when, where and how. Magazine pieces are small, have a handful of graphics at most, and are meant to be read in one sitting, while you're not doing much of anything else that demands your attention. That's why they translate so well from one medium to another. Once this article is written (and edited), putting it on the Mix Online Web site will require someone to spend about five minutes converting into HTML format, and about eight seconds transferring it to Mix's server. If you don't want to read it on the screen, you can download it and print it out and shove it in your pocket, to be perused over lunch, or while you're waiting for the jerk in front of you at the toll booth to get change back for his $20 bill.

But there are other written materials that are critical to our industry--perhaps even more important (yes, it's true!) than magazine articles--which don't flow so well from one medium to another. User manuals, despite the fact that many people claim never to read them, are the best--often the only--way that the makers of the tools central to our industry have to teach their customers how to use those tools. I've written before about the sorry state of pro audio documentation, and I'll no doubt do it again, but this month I want to talk less about the quality level and more about the form of user manuals-a topic that is becoming increasingly significant as our headlong plunge into converting all media to digital continues to pick up speed.

Traditionally, of course, user manuals are big, thick books, sometimes in multiple volumes, that contain what the manufacturer thinks you need to know about their software or hardware product. Sometimes these books contain tutorials that teach you some of the important features of the product by walking you through various procedures, step by step. They also include reference sections, in which every feature, critical and insignificant, is explained, usually in an order defined not by how they are used or how they work together, but by the screen layout or by the letters of the alphabet. Smart users read the tutorials first, so they can feel right away that they have a handle on what this new toy is about, and leave the reference for times when they need to find out about something specific.

But pro audio manufacturers, like magazine publishers, are recognizing that large books with small type may no longer be the best way to get information to users. Paper is getting more and more expensive, both in terms of sheer dollars and the effect its manufacture is having on the environment, while data bandwidth is getting exponentially cheaper. Storage space in most studios (especially private ones) for manuals from old but still-occasionally-useful gadgets and programs is increasingly harder to justify, as the continuous flow of docs for new, flashier tools demand their place on the shelf. We all know that CD-ROMs (or the forthcoming DVD-ROMs) take up only a small fraction of this space-a shelfful of manuals on polycarbonate can replace a whole houseful of bound sheets of bleached cellulose. And then there's the call of the Internet: With computers and modems so ubiquitous, and the cost of online storage and access dwindling down to insignificance, there's a feeling among many that this is the best medium of all. A lot of folks think, as Nicholas Negroponte preaches from the back page of Wired every month, that it's time for us to stop delivering atoms in favor of delivering electrons.

In the circles I run around in, and the companies I consult for, this is one of the hottest debates of the moment. And despite the fact that everyone wants to and is ready to take advantage of new media, exactly how that's going to be done is a long way from being resolved, because there's a really important factor that has nothing to do with the technology itself and everything to do with how effective the technology will be-the human factor: what people want and need from documentation.

When you learn a new tool, you adjust your habits and techniques to accommodate that tool. Film composers don't think in feet and frames any more; they think in SMPTE time because the tools work that way. Users of hard-disk workstations no longer need to equate "tracks" with "channels," since the physical restrictions that created those fixed relationships no longer exist. Part of the responsibility-not to mention the fun-of being in a technology-driven industry is that we constantly have to learn new ways to think and operate.

But delivering documentation in new formats demands an extra level of adjustment-we must also learn new ways to learn. Learning how to learn was what we were supposed to get from our childhood schooling: how to find information, how to absorb it, how to use it to find more information, how to log what we learn in our brains or on a fixed medium for future reference and study. But as working adults, how ready are we to make significant changes in these very basic skills-and should we be required to?

Despite the millennial declarations of the techno-priesthood, many old ways of learning still work and will continue to do so for a while. The classic image of the new synthesizer user sitting down with the manual sprawled out on top of the keyboard, flipping pages to see what this beastie can do, is still as valid as ever. Years of dealing with paper resources-marking them by folding corners of pages or scribbling in the margins, retaining visual memories of where things are on pages, finding page numbers no matter how small or badly placed they are when searching out index items-have made us comfortable with the medium, so comfortable that we literally don't have to think about what we're doing or how we're doing it. And there are a few strange folks out there (among whom I count myself) who like to read manuals, even the reference sections, completely "offline." This gives us a chance to think about what we are reading, to absorb the gestalt of a product without immediately jumping over to the new toy to try out each titillating concept we come across, inevitably getting distracted by the other features surrounding it.

Having the medium be transparent to the message, Marshall McLuhan notwithstanding, is key to making an effective educational tool. Video manuals, the darlings of the late '80s, never took off, in large part because the medium couldn't help but trip all over itself. First, people don't approach documentation linearly, and videotape's utterly nonrandom-access format made many people feel they were in a vise, or worse, a third-grade classroom. Presenters on video need to be (or at least pretend to be) attractive and engaging people-and let's face it, most design engineers don't exhibit too many of those qualities. Finding professional actors who can present this stuff convincingly isn't easy because we're a very critical audience-the first time they mispronounce "SMPTE," they've lost us. (When was the last time you stuck around a demo at a trade show after you realized that, despite the presenter's flashy demeanor, glib delivery and presumed passion for the product, you knew far more about what they were talking about than they did?) And good video production values are expensive-just putting up a camera and pointing it at the box while a disembodied finger pushes buttons will have viewers asleep within seconds.

Computers offer us far more flexibility in terms of access and format, but many of the questions remain. We can't assume that somehow we will be able to develop the same intuitive sense we now have with books with some kind of onscreen display. First, we've had hundreds of years to get used to how books work, but because presentation technology changes so quickly, it's going to be the rare individual who has time to acclimate to one way of dealing with documents before a whole new delivery system takes over. Just in the past 15 years, straight text on a screen was replaced with formatted text, then multiple windows, then color and 3-D, then interactive diagrams, then hypertext, and now video vignettes that can be pulled out of the context and pored over at any time and in any sequence. Are any of us masters at dealing with these media? Our children, nursed on hyperactive video games and the World Wide Web, are probably better equipped to work with them than we are, but by the time they reach adulthood, how much of what they know now will be out of date?

As multimedia manuals require more and more horsepower just to view, we also have to ask ourselves whether we really want to be forced to run our computers constantly, just so we can read the docs for a new toy. Computers can't go to the beach or the bathroomÉat least not yet. We have the technology now to revive erstwhile Apple visionary Alan Kay's concept of the "dynabook," a fully portable unit the size of a paperback that can display anything you can think of on its high-resolution, full-color screen. But in a world where we can't even agree on an audio format for DVD, and Apple can't even keep its line of palm tops alive for more than two generations of hardware, I somehow don't see standardization of such a medium coming soon. And without a standard platform the idea is doomed. Of course, if your computer is on all the time anyway, as more studio tools take the form of software plug-ins, online documentation makes a little more sense.

Finally, marketers have to determine how people respond to digital media, as opposed to paper-based documentation. Do customers need to lift those hefty books when they open the box in order to feel that they've bought into something substantial, or would they be just as happy with a CD-ROM? If you supply one and not the other, but offer a postcard to be sent in that will result in the delivery of the other at no cost, will that satisfy everyone? And how do you choose which one to include and which one to make users ask for? The CD-ROM is cheaper from a manufacturing standpoint, so there's an obvious point in its favor, but how many non-computer users will you piss off by doing that? And if it turns out the demand for the send-away format is much greater than you thought, can you come up with extra copies fast enough to make all of the users happy, or will they start returning units in disgust? No one to my knowledge has done any research on these issues, at least not in our field, and so any manufacturer that tries to implement this kind of policy is going to find itself out on a long, untested limb.

But someone's got to do it, and no doubt someone will. And perhaps that will help answer a larger question, which is to what degree must manufacturers follow user preferences, and to what degree can they attempt to lead users in new directions? These issues need to be ironed out, and they will be, although it may be slow and painful.

And what about the Internet? For manufacturers, this is a potentially ideal way to produce documentation: No manufacturing costs, no mailing costs, instant upgradeability, and the capacity to give users access to entire rooms full of tutorials, references, presentations, troubleshooting procedures, etc., on an as-needed, essentially cost-free basis. But this presents some real problems, too--some practical, some theoretical. I'll talk about them more next month.


Paul D. Lehrman still uses paper, despite the fact that he is editorial director of the Mix Online Web site. Members of the site can join an online discussion of this and other issues in the Talkback section.

These materials copyright ©1998, 2001 by Paul D. Lehrman and Intertec Publishing