The MgmtSIG digest pointed me towards the Bitsavers’ Software Archive (http://www.bitsavers.org/), which stores documentation and software for minicomputers and mainframes from the 1950s -1980s. It shows how far user assistance has come, particularly in terms of graphic design.
However, there are still areas where we could learn from the past. The digest referenced MiTTS (Minimalist Tutorial and Tools for Smalltalk – http://users.edte.utwente.nl/meij/smalltalk.pdf). Apparently, this guide was a pioneer of the minimalist approach to documentation championed by John M. Carroll. It’s the main approach online Help authors and Web designers use today.
The document begins:
“This tutorial is deliberately different from other programming instruction you have seen. It does not start off with a long drill on syntax and an example program that prints “Hello World.” Instead, it allows you to experience Smalltalk as an integrated software environment for object-oriented programming. In this minimalist tutorial you learn Smalltalk by analyzing and enhancing a simple but real application, a blackjack card game. You climb the Smalltalk Mountain by starting at the top!”
This leads me onto the themes of my talk at the UA Conference Europe 2008, concerning how user documentation is likely to change in the future. I suggested we’re likely see these developments:
The findable manual – users can find the documentation when they search on Google.
The read/write manual – users can write content was well as read it.
The remixed manual – users can remix the manual to suit them.
The community/collaborative manual – users can comment and share ideas.
The distributed manual – the content will be republished to many different places
The manual as a portal – the manual is a launching pad to other related user assistance
The user assistance we produce today may look as antiquated as the Bitsavers’ examples sooner than we realise!