Reading Usable Help
@UsableHelp on Twitter
Gordon R. Meyer
In the software industry we often talk of "third-party" products. The "first-party" is the original manufacturer, the "second-party" is the customer. The third, then, is another company or individual who provides support, products, or services related to the first party's products.
In surveying the rising tide of independently-produced documentation, tutorials, and Help I've come to call these items "fourth-party documentation." By this I mean information products that are independently produced and authored, without affiliation with large publishers, and are brought to market using small-scale, Internet-based production, distribution, and sales technology.
Jenny at The Creative Tech Writer discusses the problems of time and resources inherent in this approach, and identifies content-related issues at RedPaper, a storefront for independent content. Indeed, the technology advice section at the site already has a large number of articles to choose from, such as Tips for Better Google Searches and how to turn off sound effects in Internet Explorer.
Another tool of interest to Fourth-party authors is BitPass, a new micro-payment service that is gaining a lot of traction even its beta stage. Scott McCloud is one early adopter of note and is using it for his webcomic The Right Number.
Finally, CafePress is soon to add printed books (in a variety of sizes and formats) to their on-demand manufacturing, which will nicely combine with their data CD services to allow for professionally-printed self-paced workbooks and portfolios without a large capital investment.
See also: "Information format trends," "Tutorials for shareware products," "Your mom's guide to iPhoto," "More examples of supplemental Help," "Quick reference cards," and "Would you pay for a third-party PDF manual?"