Portfolio management software is featured in this issue’s product comparison. While installing and testing these programs, I was struck by how documentation has changed over the years.
My office bookshelf is jammed full with old program manuals, but for our comparison of portfolio management programs, only one program out of the 10 that we examined had a thick printed manual. A few programs came with an abbreviated getting started guide that walks users through the installation and basic program operation. Overall, the vendors of software programs have abandoned the traditional printed program manual and have been busy developing on-line help systems and interactive tutorials.
Fifteen years ago, software vendors seemed to measure the quality of their documentation by the pound. If you purchased an application such as Microsoft Office, you could count on the documentation taking up nearly a foot of shelf space. Microsoft Excel alone came with a half-dozen books describing how to use the program, detailing the built-in functions, explaining how to construct macros, and even instructing how to switch from Lotus 1-2-3 to Excel.
Initially, software documentation came in three-ring binders so that pages could be updated as necessary. Sections were divided by tabs to quickly locate specific material.
Then vendors switched to spiral-bound documentation, which was cheaper to produce, yet still allowed users to easily keep the manual open to a given page or section. Eventually vendors switched to standard bound manuals, which were even cheaper to produce.
Today, vendors that sell software in retail outlets still package their programs in large boxes, but these boxes are mostly filled with air. Documentation has transitioned from paper books to on-line help and tutorials.
The important question to ask is: Are users hurt by this transition? While certainly some users have suffered, the move from static printed documentation to dynamic documentation is a good transition provided it is kept up to date. I know that I like looking over a printed manual when studying a definition, but I prefer tutorials when learning how to perform a function.
On-line documentation is easier to keep current, can be cross referenced, and can be easily searched. Most vendors now produce slide-show tutorials that explain program features. Some vendors maintain message boards that end up becoming live documentation.
While cost-cutting may have driven the switch from printed documentation to electronic documentation, the transition can benefit end-users—if it is done well.