Reading Usable Help
@UsableHelp on Twitter
Gordon R. Meyer
Just play it
While video games have an established tradition of including "conceptual" and supplemental documentation with their products, they also been among the most aggressive in jettisoning printed documentation from their boxes. In the April 2004 issue of Inside MacPlay a response to reader "Luddite Larry", who wrote the company asking why games now have PDF documentation instead of printed manuals, provides one explanation:
"I have a couple questions for you, Larry: Whatever happened to respect for trees? Have you ever seen one of those aerial photos that show denuded forests?
But I digress. PDF manuals make sense not only from an environmental standpoint but from a practical one too. Every publisher knows that most gamers dive right into a game rather than read the manual first. That's why we include tutorials in the first level. A typical player doesn't bother with the manual unless he's stuck, at which point it won't kill him to quit the game and check out a PDF manual (or load it on a second computer, something most of us have these days). And we save valuable packaging space in the process.
Of course, you can always print out the necessary pages so that you have a few precious pieces of paper to hold while playing the game. That way old-fashioned types like you can still cling to the 20th century like a 13-year-old boy hanging onto his Christina Aguilera poster.
Someday, though, gamers will wirelessly download manuals into chips planted in their heads. I have seen the future, Larry. And I have shaved part of my head in anticipation of it."
A humorous answer, but buried within are several bright ideas and observations. It's certainly true that the minimalist-rooted concept of help as a last resort is well demonstrated in the gaming world, where clearly players try their best to figure out a problem before turning to documentation. But even more so, note that tutorials provide in-context documentation, sometimes occurring throughout the game and not just in the beginning, which demonstrates another sound instructional principal at work.
Also, if their market research is correct, their documentation suite is informed by the reality of their customer base. That is, customers have access to multiple computers and have the ability to print just the few pages they might want to reference regularly. What might seem to be a barrier, probably isn't to much of their market.
Not only can eliminating printed documentation save money in production and shipping, by examining a customer's situation and replacing the printed matter with well thought out alternatives, companies can enhance the overall product's value.