Are PDFs “Content Coffins”?


August 2008

From the Director

CIDMIconNewsletterJoAnn Hackos

Are PDFs “Content Coffins”?

At the recent X-Pubs conference in London, several speakers focused on the changes they are making to their content-development processes and to the ways in which they deliver content. One speaker, from the US Army, remarked that his organization regards PDFs as the coffins of content. They find that providing entire manuals in electronic form no longer meets the needs of their users.

Consider, for example, the changes taking place at Boeing. They are creating content using XML-based authoring and reusing content at a highly granular level with conditional processing. In fact, they don’t write manuals anymore. All their content is developed as task-based modules with supporting information such as descriptive, conceptual, process, and reference information types.

The writers report a 36 percent reduction in the cost of updating the content over a three-year period. Each time a writer begins to develop a new task, he or she must first complete an estimate of the work required and a schedule for its completion. They average about 2.5 pages for the typical task. If traditional per page estimates averaged around 5 hours per page, 2.5 pages would average 12.5 hours to produce. With a 36 percent decrease, that might mean calculating on average about 8 hours per page for developing a single task.

Their audience is the mechanics who repair airplanes. They use online tools to access content, which means they had to learn to rely on content that is not delivered on paper. The content is now delivered on tough, tablet-style computers that can be carried into the workplace. As a result of the changes, customers report a 22 percent reduction in maintenance costs.

We have encountered similar projects among companies supporting field technicians, at least those who have technology solutions readily available. Developers of content to support equipment maintenance, like John Deere and The Raymond Company (a division of Toyota), report that they intend to link modular content directly to problem-diagnostic tools. A machine is plugged into diagnostic software that analyzes the problems and offers solutions. The solutions present the appropriate task-based modules with access to additional content and to parts-ordering systems. The information needed to complete the maintenance tasks is at the technician’s fingertips.

Diagnostic tools are also supported through laptop or tablet computers so that they can be taken into the workplace. If the equipment cannot be brought to the computer, the computer can be brought to the equipment.

The Electronic Flight Bag

Most of us have watched airline pilots trudge onboard with standard black cases. These cases contain the manuals they may need if something goes wrong with the plane. Jeppesen (a division of Boeing) is moving this content online. They are producing a system called the Electronic Flight Bag (EFB), which contains in easily findable form all the data and instructions that had been on paper. The content is not organized into manuals but into searchable modules of information.

An article in Boeing’s Aerospace Magazine by David Allen reports that the EFB system includes several e-documents. These documents include the flight crew operating manual, US Federal Aviation Regulations, and the Aeronautical Information Manual. According to the article, “the e-documents application allows flight crew members to view and search current electronic documents on the flight deck.”

Now, unfortunately, these sound like humongous manuals rather than flexible electronic content. However, the article goes on to conclude that the e-document system can be enhanced by each airline.

“Airlines also will be able to use the e-documents application to author and

host documents. Documents are best viewed as XML format, which supports searching and text wrapping. The e-documents ground administration tool can convert structured and unstructured PDF files into HTML documents for viewing. E-documents also accept scanned images (which are shown as pictures) in GIF, JPG, TIF, and CGM formats.”

Allen explains the advantages of the EFB, which weighs less than paper and eliminates the paper clutter in the cockpit. Apparently, the average paper on a large airliner weighs nearly 80 lbs. The electronic content is easier and faster to access, saving time when time is in short supply.

Under the right circumstances, when users are looking for specific task- or reference-oriented content, the electronic delivery of topics would appear superior to the electronic delivery of entire manuals. Search for the specific task, find the specific task information, link to related information—all of this works better online than on paper.

Delivering information on paper

Few of us would argue that all technical content should be delivered electronically. Many products include paper in the box with hardware or software. Many of us prefer reading on paper than on the screen. We even, as I do, have a kitchen drawer dedicated to paper manuals.

A colleague recently mentioned that he now throws out all those paper manuals because he can always find the information on the manufacturer’s website. I found that an intriguing thought considering that my new refrigerator comes with a huge manual that I have a difficult time shoving into the drawer. It’s 130 pages long and in three languages.

If I go to the LG website, can I find the manual for my refrigerator? Yes, as long as I know the model number, which is conveniently posted inside the door. The Owner’s Manual is available from the product catalog page. But, the online manual is exactly like the paper, in three languages and 3.88 MB. It’s 130 pages long—not something I really want to print. Much of the content is about installation, not basic use or troubleshooting.

Can I easily print one topic—no, the content is a PDF. For the time being, I’ll keep the manual in the drawer, although I’m thinking about removing the French and Spanish content.

Barriers to electronic delivery

Based on the recent CIDM delivery-methods survey results, we learned that most technical publications organizations do not directly control the way information is managed on corporate websites. In many cases, the only option they have is to send PDFs to someone in IT or other function who manages the public-facing websites. When we’ve studied how content is presented on these sites, we often learn that the search is barely functional and the navigation is impossible. In one case, the manuals on the website were labeled with nothing more than an 8-digit file name. No title, no revision date, no abstract. No wonder customers couldn’t find anything.

Based on various user studies, we’ve learned that customers waste time downloading huge files that turn out to be the same versions they already have, with none of the information they are looking for. We hear from technicians who need the latest approved procedure to accomplish a task, that they are forced to conduct a series of searches, first to the PDFs and then inside the PDFs.

When publications organizations control the website design, the results are not always better. Without serious user studies, sound site design principles, and testing, it’s very difficult for anyone to deploy content-focused websites that are usable. When the websites are designed by people for whom documentation is an afterthought, it’s no surprise that customers are frustrated.

Google barriers as well

Customers will tell you, if you ask them, that they rely on Google search to find web

content because they are so completely frustrated by corporate websites. Unfortunately, Google search does not always find the right information required by a focused, technical search. Google leads to general information, not specific, especially when technicians are looking for a specific procedure, reference information, or troubleshooting. They don’t want hundreds of pages; they just want one.

Considering future delivery methods

As is usually the case, the lesson is in knowing the customers and understanding their current and future needs. Unfortunately, you can’t just ask—you actually have to go to the customers directly and observe their circumstances of use for technical content. You can’t ask them if they prefer paper—they will tell you that they prefer what they already receive. You need to know when and how they use information to inform their learning or the performance of critical tasks. Then, you can plan the right combination of responses to best meet their needs.CIDMIconNewsletter




David Allen

Boeing’s Aerospace Magazine

Third Quarter

July 2003