Reading Usable Help
@UsableHelp on Twitter
Gordon R. Meyer
A tangent on tangents
Those of us who have been in the tech writing business for a few years will remember the halcyon days of thick, printed manuals. Concerns about page count were virtually unheard of -- the bigger the manual the better the software -- and the challenges imposed by localization were, at most, a hypothetical discussion. Sometimes there was actually a suite of documentation -- a whole collection of manuals -- and it wasn't too unusual to include a short publication or reference card whose sole purpose was to provide a roadmap to the other documentation. Yes, there was even a manual for the manuals!
Often, manuals of this era included long introductory chapters, sometimes entire sections, that barely even mentioned the software at all. And, oh the sidebars! Wonderfully tangential, often with their own illustrations, reading the sidebars and marginalia was sometimes the best part of the book. It could certainly be more interesting than the staid instructional design that was typical of the time.
For the most part, you won't find tangential or superfluous material in today's documentation, but the spirit lives on at support web sites. For a taste, see How to Pick Up and Carry your iMac G5, the support article that could have been titled My Computer Smells Funny, and Where to Find the Any Key. Ah, the good old days.