This research literature review on online help systems vs. printed documentation is like an annotation of systems capabilities and success in passing or relaying needed information. Online help systems may be a easy to access and use at the moment due to easy access to computers and the internet, however there may be need for printed documentation for those who may not know how to use current technology or be able to access the internet. In all these issues, there are people who have explored the benefits as well as the challenges of both systems and given views on which system most people may be adapted to or well accustomed to. In this literature review, I explore the author research on online help systems vs. printed documentation and outline the key benefits and/or challenges of each. I also show which system, according to the authors may have better usability than the other.
Research Literature Review - Online Help Systems vs. Printed Documentation
Research already done by many scholars indicates the gap between the usability of both the online help systems and the printed documentation. Through the years there has been many researches by both the application developers as well as individuals who seek to make reveal the true statistics of the usage of online help systems vs. printed documentation. Many researchers and authors have sought to unravel solutions to issues such as:
How easy is it for users to find information on the online help systems vs. the printed documentation? What issues/challenges are users encountering when using either the online help system or the printed documentation? What can be concluded concerning the online help system vs. printed documentation?
How easy is it for users to find information on the online help systems vs. the printed documentation?
In their article, How Useful Is Online-Help: An Observational Study, Usman G. Abdullahi & James L. Alty unveil a rather strong point that online help systems may be a little less common than manuals or printed documents. Giving different tasks and questionnaires to novice, intermediary and expert systems users, Usman G. Abdullahi & James L. Alty concluded that with printed documentation “Users appreciate the fact that the instructions do not clutter the screen, and that there is a clear separation between help source and application”. This may be an indication that the extent of online help systems usage may be a little more limited than it may be known to be.
Jean A. Pratt (1998) says online help systems “are very often not helpful and sometimes even increase the user’s frustration and stress level.” According to Jean, the reason why this is so is because, the online help systems documentation is written by the technical software/application developers instead of the instructional designers who better understand the users’ needs for clear instructional online help systems. Online systems offer information and “while they provide users with some hands-on experience, they seldom aid with anything beyond the basics.” This offers further indication that online help systems may still be wanting on terms of usability and extent of informational help they provide to their users.
What issues/challenges are users encountering when using either the online help system or the printed documentation?
According to Usman G. Abdullahi and James L. Alty there are three main issues/problems that users encounter with online systems. The authors say that, “Firstly, there is a problem of access - what we will call the Ontological Problem. Users (particularly Novices) cannot seem to find the right terms in which to express their problems to the system. Terminology, which seems perfectly acceptable to them, results in streams of unhelpful information……The second problem, is one of Compartmentalization. Paths lead to single blocks of information, a long way down the Help tree, and Ontological problems, on the way down, only make things worse……The third problem is the lack of an Integrated Base of information. This is where the user manual, for all its faults, scores well. When users do not know what they want, they browse the manual seeking out relevant keywords which match their problem. This is almost certainly the basic problem in on-line help.”
With online help systems, “the kind of online assistance most widely available is the lower end of the continnum or static help…..its major weakness is its inability to offer assistance related to the present state of the user’s activity.”, says Langston M.D et al. Langston et al. also add that “the system cannot select in advance the category of help information needed.” This further emphasizes that users may find it a little challenging in using the online systems if they do not know the key words to use in their search for particular information. Most users of Excel, for example find seemed to find it a little more challenging to use the online help system as tasks got more and more complicated as revealed by Usman G. Abdullahi and James L. Alty.
“..inexperienced users turn more often to paper than online documentation.” Says Karl L. Smart et al. in their article, Assessing the Need for Printed and Online Documentation: A Study of Customer Preference and Use. These author/researchers further clarify that, “Although users can search for information more quickly in an online medium with a good search engine, the medium often proves more difficult to navigate, especially for novice users.” Further research by the authors also reveals that, “reading from computer screens is as much as 28% slower than reading from a paper document.” These and many issues may be the indicators that show a clear line between the higher usage of print documentation and online help systems usage.
Larry Koved (1985), wrote an article, Restructuring Textual Information for Online Retrieval, and unveiled that “the aids we have for printed material have not generally been provided in online systems.” Many users tend to go for systems that contain more information that is easily and readily found. This then makes the print documentation a preference to many especially novice or first time software application users. By using experimental methods, Larry Koved (1985) concluded that “people reading from paper do perform tasks faster than when working from computer screens.”
Hong (Iris) Xie and Adam M. Bowser (2009) added to the above authors’ research on online help systems vs. printed documentation usage and outlined their findings in their article, Examining Online Help Features. By choosing and studying different information retrieval (IR) systems, Hong (Iris) Xie et al. found out that most users preferred the use of printed documentation due to reasons that, “users looking for help are confronted with different designs and terminologies based on the different types of IR systems.” This poses a problem to users, especially novice users, on the usage of online help systems.
Much that had been done on the research into the use of online help systems vs. printed documentation did not stop Ed Foster from doing more research. As Ed delved more into this areas of sensitivity on documentation and a need to find the best suited means of software application documentation, he finally wrote the article, Which suits your technical manual fancy: Print or online documentation? In his finding Ed said that, “I received many elegant pleas for full printed manuals…..” This was also a result of the users’ notion that, “online help is just too time-consuming because if you don’t phrase your queries exactly how they have been programmed….”
Electronic Performance Support Systems (EPSS) may be a thing to reckon as an added value to the online help systems. “An EPSS is an intelligent tool that is designed to assist the employee in doing more intelligent tasks with only a novice background”, says Scales Glenda Rose and Yang Chia-Shing (1993) in their article, Perspectives on Electronic Performance Support Systems. These new systems may be a pathway to better performing online help systems if users can adapt to the new training that may be required.
By outlining and analyzing the stages of problem-solving that users employ, Hans van der Meij (1996) unveils a trend that even with manuals, “most of the problem-solving information in manuals is inaccessible. More efforts are needed to overcome the obstacles of “no keyword,” “no marking,” and “misplacement” of problem-solving information.
What can be concluded concerning the online help system vs. printed documentation?
In all these researches done, it can then be concluded that though the printed documentation seems to be preferred by many as a source of help, both sources of help face challenges of accessibility in some level. All in all, there are challenges and issues that must be resolved, that is, making information or help more easily and readily available to users.
Abdullahi, Usman G. & Alty, James L. Alty, How Useful is On-line Help?: An
Observational Study, Loughborough, UK.
Pratt, Jean A (1998), Technical Communication. Where Is the Instruction in Online Help
Duffy, Thomas M. & Langston M.D (1985), Online Help: Design Issues for Authoring
Systems, CDC Technical Report No. 18
Smart, Karl L., Whiting Matthew E., DeTienne, Kristen B. (2001), Assessing the Need for
Printed and Online Documentation: A Study of Customer reference and Use, The Journal
of Business Communication, Volume 38, No.3, 285-314
Koved, Larry (1985), Restructuring Textual Information for Online Retrieval,
College Park, Maryland
Bowser, Adam M., Xie, Hang (Iris). (2009), Examining Online Help Features.
Foster Ed (1997), Which suits your technical manual fancy: Print or online documentation?
The Gripe Line, InfoWorld, 19, 35
Scales, Glenda R., Yang, Chia-Shing (1993), Perspectives on Electronic Performance
Hans van der Meij (1996), Does the Manual Help? An Examination of the Problem-
Solving Support Offered by Manuals, IEEE Transactions On Professional Communication, Vol. 39, No 3,