Blasphemy on a Friday afternoon in the UE department

As you may or may not, know - heck, who am I kidding, of course you don't know. Let me start again.

I work in the user education department here at Microsoft, specifically in the Developer Division. Even more specifically, I work with the C# team.

Today, as I was writing some stuff that some day you might read, I found myself wondering idly whether delivering documents in electronic format was really the best way to do things. I know searching is great, and copying and pasting code is even more great, but gee whizz - I just love flicking through a good book to get information, don't you?

I'm surrounded here by dozens of books, and I'm not sure if having them all in electronic format would make my life any easier. Books are tactile, they're easy to launch, I love randomly accessing pages, I use bookmarks, and the ink and paper is almost soothing to my eyes after staring at monitors all day.

Perhaps electronic ink displays will make a difference, but I was certainly whistful for the days I did some programming in Delphi. I really liked that that set of manuals. Big, rough paper with great example code. I loved it, and it made learning and using Delphi very straightforward.

So what do you think - is the ease of use of electronic searching and the Internet worth the trade off? Should we return to dead tree technology?

Comments (3)
  1. Peter Evans says:

    It’s the instant accessible, portable and rugged nature that makes the book interface so comfortable. You just can’t take electronic stuff with you without due care to its safety yet. Whereas with a book your only real durablity threats are water, fire and children(pets too). Display device replacement cost is a barrier to electronic books. Until the cost of the display device equals the 7.95, it can’t compete with hardcopy.

    The benefits the electronic stuff has going for it still don’t measure up to that of a good book in many ways. Electronic data still isn’t durable enough in its consistency. Too many times broken links can be an issue. Also, with electronic links there’s the lack of ability to verify that the information is as it was when the citation was made. Hardcopy has that indellible(?sp) and unchanging quality lacking on the net.

    The thing electronic formatted documents should excell at are the ability to filter the online data to contexts such that a reader can find specific information based on a advanced web query meeting the readers expectations.

    Unfortunately this implies a search engine tuned to the users expectations and competencies. I know of none at this time.

    MSDN does a good job of categorizing results, but its still doesn’t help with the S/N problem. I as a reader still have to open a few pages and decide relevance to my needs. What is needed are objective measures of web searches relative to the usefulness of the actually read web pages listed in their results.

    In general, electronic search tools need some form of measure that inidicates a S/N ratio relative to the users expectations.

    The last problem with electronic data is that its growing far faster than printed format, because the cost to archive and produce it is some much lower. This causes a huge increase in the search space and slows the ability of even the best search bots and humans to manage its vastness. Whereas with printed material, there are the marketplace governing dynamics that make it growth somewhat self-limiting.

  2. Phil says:

    I prefer the printed book as well, it’s more than just the tactile sense, it’s far more versatile than I see electronic books ever becoming.

    Because all of the pages are at your fingertips (and you have much more control over the 3D pages with 10 fingers than with a 2D ebook with a 2-button mouse) you can flip through it and find information a lot faster.

    Also, I hate applications that have electronic-only documentation (ok, that’s all of them now, but I remember when I bought Publisher 95 and it had a nice, chunky, manual) since trying to organise a single-monitor with the documentation and the application is a pain-in-the-ass!

    Finally, something that I can’t seem to find in Acrobat Reader, no matter how hard I look – bookmarks.

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