Can you learn anything from bits?

The overwhelming trend in software today is for everything to go electronic. “I sell bits”, a software publisher friend of mine told me proudly, “I sell nothing physical: my customers download everything they need”. Manuals, according to this trend, are obsolete. Everyone knows that no-one reads manuals.

Now I agree that when you’re looking for something a help file can be a very good thing. Even a PDF file has its uses: if I’m following the “download it and run it without learning anything” approach to software buying, half a dozen pages of PDF may be all I need apart from the menu commands themselves.

But there is an old rule that says that anything worth learning needs learning. And I’ve never really believed that you can learn something purely by looking up specific items in a help file or reading brief descriptions on a screen.

In Cardbox [for Windows] 2.0 we saved ourselves some postage by sending people just the Getting Started manual, putting the main User Manual onto the CD in PDF format (of course the help file was pretty good already).

I didn’t like the result. People got a simplistic impression of what Cardbox could do (tied closely to the Getting Started tour) and never discovered a lot of its power. It became clear that the big drawback of electronic media was that they don’t answer the questions you don’t ask – and books, on the whole, do.

So in Cardbox 3.0 we’ve taken the opposite approach but we’ve also taken advantage of electronic media in a new way. The new book is 300 pages long, and it’s in colour. It doesn’t try to tell you everything as in the pre-help-file days, but it does try to get you to see everything. There’s even a nice long section describing the many things that other people use Cardbox for, with pictures: it’s entitled “Inspiration” and it certainly inspired us when we saw how creative our users are.

So we’re aiming to give understanding rather than mere instructions. It’s only sensible: books are good at overviews, at getting the feel of things, while help files are notoriously bad. On the other hand, why waste pages and pages of a manual explaining exactly how to import an Excel table via ODBC and OLE DB, when only a tiny proportion of people will ever need that information, and those that do need it will probably only need it once?

None of this could be done if help files didn’t exist. The books gives you the understanding and the help file handles the details. When you need step-by-step instructions, you get them on the screen – either by pressing F1 or by selecting a Help Point mentioned in the manual [Help Points are an invention that we're rather proud of: more about them in a later post].

I was inspired to write this post by something I saw in Jensen Harris’s Office User Interface Blog: [It] may be that help is not really conducive to learning. It’s more like a recipe than a community college course. The official line on manuals is “no one reads manuals” and maybe that’s true, but there are a lot of people buying books to learn how to use software… A book is way better than help if you’re trying to become familiar with a piece of software–it has a narrative, it might be funny sometimes, you can take it into your bed with you, and it’s designed to teach, not to troubleshoot. [Help is for Experts]

He’s almost right. It’s not that help is for experts, really. Help is like satellite navigation: tell it where you want to go and it’ll take you there. But where might you want to go? What is the choice? Only a guidebook will tell you that.

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