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Documentation = Sales

The need for good software documentation is obvious for people using the product. But its value is less clear for prospective buyers. Many websites maintain a wall between marketing/sales information and user documentation (which falls under the rubric of “support”). The marketing people don?t want consumers to see all the bugs and functionality problems with their software, wanting to put their best foot forward. The support people are just the opposite. They want everybody to be forewarned about limitations and issues related to a product.

For me access to documentation is often a primary determinant of whether I decide to buy a product. Recently I tried to buy some cd-burning software. I had read about 5 or 6 packages in Smart Computing. The market leader, Roxio’ss Easy CD Creator received good marks, but it was also the most expensive product and I?m sure others would serve my purposes. My main need was support for long file names and possibly a good backup program bundled along with it. I looked around a few websites and couldn’t find information worth a damn on these subjects on any site except Roxio (which had a great table about file names).  And then, although I thought that my CD burner would probably be supported by most of the programs, only Roxio stated so explicitly. That was certainly comforting. While browsing through the system requirements, I also found 2 or 3 updates or  alerts about potential problems to avoid before installing the product.

I was blown away. And when I bought the product at the nearby store, I was pleased to find a nice booklet in the box. Techie types forget that online help serves a marketing purpose by making potential buyers aware of features and support. I cannot stress that enough. One of the most time-consuming parts of system administration is figuring out whether the manufacturer supports your existing hardware or software. Indeed, when I built a system last summer, I spent about 80% of the total time just researching specs. Companies that make serious efforts to systematically organize their online documentation soon find that consumers tend to prefer their products over the competition, simply because they can tell at a glance whether their product is supported. .

Here is my list of some great and awful sites in terms of technical documentation.

Good

  1. Epson they organize drivers, documentation and manuals in an easy to find fashion. Here is the page for my printer looks like.
  2. Macromedia  their help site has an excellent fusetalk forum for posing user problems. That way, you are not relying solely on support people to answer your problems.
  3. VMWARE I ended up not buying their product, but generally their how-to’s and online help make it clear what the software can do
  4. Yahoo okay, online services differs greatly from shrinkwrapped software, but I’ve always been amazed at how tightly it integrated help into the online services.
  5. Microsoft (Consolation Prize) It’s only natural that the largest software system should have a decent help system. (although I rarely consult it for pre-purchase information, only technical support). Their knowledge base is pretty elaborate, but of course it assumes you need to know what you’re looking for.

Worst

  1. Norton Antivirus I have flailed about for many hours trying to figure things out, even to figure out about OS support. It’s next to impossible. Go here for Norton “search-engine hell.”
  2. Partition Magic although the user guide is good, the online help is terrible, and it’s often hard to find out about support.
  3. Adobe Besides using small fonts, lots of distracting graphics and inadequate manuals, their online forums are often hard to wade through. I spent a good hour just trying to figure out whether 6.-0 Adobe Framemaker is supported in Windows ME. (It’s not).
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