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PDF still trumps browser-based help?

Mar 19, 2015 • general

In the Skills and Technology Survey 2014 by WritersUA, it appears that PDF manuals are the most common deliverable:

Support for manuals in the form of PDF (77%) is at the top of the list as the most valued technology component. Using PDF as a delivery format has become a staple in our documentation sets. PDF files can be delivered on an installation CD or via the Web. In the past, this technology was mainly used for legacy print documents like user guides, and also for supplemental white papers and troubleshooting information. Today we find many organizations using PDF files as the primary distribution format for product documentation.

Print is still of use to 1 ot of 5 respondents which is a healthy number. ePub and Kindle are likely to grow in usage, but the UA community doesn't seem to have found them exceptionally useful yet.

The use of browser-based Help (73%) continues to be very popular with our respondents placing it second. The lure of displaying content in a web browser window seems to offer enough positive value for us to favor it over more feature-rich, platform-specific proprietary Help systems. This form of content delivery uses standard and non-standard Web technologies to deliver Help content through Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, and other browsers. Implementation strategies run the gamut from using basic HTML pages to proprietary solutions, such as WebHelp and WebWorks Help, to complex renderings employing custom JavaScript and HTML5/CSS.

This actually blows my mind. I was talking with someone from a large multinational company at tcworld India last week (I can't remember exactly which company, but it was one of the big ones), and she explained that they purposely do not create PDF manuals for a number reasons -- mainly, they grow quickly out of date. In an agile development shop, how can you give users a PDF that will be out of date in a month?

I'm not looking to reproduce the extensive discussion on previous posts about PDFs, or suggest usability articles discouraging PDF. As long as 77 out of 100 tech writers continue to produce PDF manuals, I think the transition from paper to the web will continue to be a major paradigm shift for the tech comm world.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical communication — Swagger, agile, trends, learning, plain language, quick reference guides, tech comm careers, academics, and more. I'm interested in simplifying complexity, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture and findability, and more. If you're a technical writer of any kind (progressional, transitioning, student), be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here. You can also contact me with questions.