Going from Print to Online?


April 1999

Going from Print to Online?


In “Print to Online: Conflicting Tales of Transition,” (Technical Communication: Journal of the Society for Technical Communication, 46(1), 1999), Louise Rehling uses personal research of a large, high-tech service support organization’s documentation strategies to illustrate the progression from print to online documentation. Rehling examines the case study both as a success story and as a cautionary tale and concludes by making some suggestions to ease the transition from print to online documentation.

From a success story standpoint, information developers maintain that their company is saving money for documentation by bringing documentation online, is utilizing new technology, and is at the forefront of the industry with CD and Web-based documentation. As a cautionary tale, Rehling states how the transition to online documentation had negative effects from both documentation and company perspectives. From a documentation perspective, key information became inaccessible or difficult for technicians to use. From a company standpoint, staff reorganization became necessary once the documentation group’s skills and functions became differentiated; further, increased revenues after online documentation were offset by expenses for staffing, development, and licensing.

Rehling proposes the following five principles and corresponding suggestions for smoothing the transition from print to online documentation:

  • Evolution is not necessarily progressive: Do not uncritically champion the new over the old.
  • Promises about tomorrow don’t do the job today: Beware the seduction of the new.
  • Quality developments require high-level coordination: Integrate documentation planning with management thinking.
  • Success in one medium is relative to what another could achieve: Do comparative research across media.
  • Satisfying users in the ways that matter most to them is the first priority: Represent the interest of users.

Rehling is quick to point out that balance, rather than an “out with the old, in with the new” approach, is critical in the shift from print to online.