Reading Usable Help
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Gordon R. Meyer
Printed manuals to return in 2003?
NY Times columnist David Pogue, in a New Year's Resolutions column, offers the following:
"1. We will revisit the elimination of printed manuals. Yes, of course, everyone's doing it -- everyone's exiling the user guides to an on-screen electronic Help menu. But at what cost? Most consumers absolutely despise electronic help screens; a printed user guide is infinitely better. I'll bet that what few nickels companies save by not creating decent manuals are more than offset by the increase in calls to technical help hotlines. (Full disclosure: I publish a line of books called the Missing Manual series. But I'd love to be put out of business by a return to the days of excellent free manuals.)"
Well, it is a nice sentiment I suppose, but glossing over the real issues makes it seem like companies omit printed materials out of spite. As a publisher, Pogue should know that the cost far exceeds a "few nickels." Let's set aside the development costs, since those are stable regardless of delivery method. (The author is paid the same for print or onscreen, in other words.) Let's also set aside, for the sake of argument, the unmentioned but more important motivator -- time to market. (Printed manuals take a very long time to produce.)
Instead, take a look at the cost. With a high-volume product, the "Cost of Goods" for a printed manual can be fairly low. A decent sized manual might cost about $1.00 to print. Now add to that a few cents to have it placed in the box at the assembly house, and a few more cents for the cost of shipping the manuals to the assembly house, and the aggregated costs of making each finished product more expensive to ship to the retailers. We're probably up to $1.25 in materials at this point, per-unit. This is going to be a big seller, that's why we printed so many, so with a half-million copies we've just spent, out of pocket, $625,000. Yikes, that's 1.25e+07 nickels! Producing fewer copies won't make it cheaper, as the cost of producing the manual in smaller quantities goes up. The fact is, aside from a very fancy box, the cost of printed in-box materials is the largest materials expense for a software product.
And speaking of boxes, they're another factor that will ensure Mr. Pogue remains in the "Missing Manual" business. The standard box size for software products has shrunk dramatically this past year -- the dimensions are now about the size of a paperback book. That means that any manual inside the box has to be smaller, resulting in more trim, waste, and effort at the printer. Resulting in, you guessed it, higher print costs.
Now a wise and forward-looking company will take that $625,000 that was saved in print costs and invest it in making the onscreen Help suck less. In the long run, that's a better strategy.