Offline Product Help Files and Manuals Are Useless

Offline help files and manuals can be close to useless for many programs. I tried to figure out how the darn mail program grouping works, and I opened the Windows Mail help file. From there I tried to search for help… just to end up reading something useless that ended with a question “was this helpful?”.

Then I stopped, searched went to Google and searched again. It was there right away (pointing to Microsoft’s web page by the way), and now I know how to use the mail groups (tip: “options” & “read” tab). It was easier to search from the Internet than search from the product manual.

It strike to me that this wasn’t the first case when I simply ignore the product manual and use Google to find out quickly how stuff works. Only perhaps some programming software I use have help files and manuals that I actually read every now and then. I know some people won’t do that either: they’ll choose to use the online help files to find “function reference of software X”.

There is some need for offline manuals, but I’m using 95% of the time the manuals I find from the Internet, and perhaps only in 5% of the time I rely on the actual offline product manuals.

Is this is also the case for you?

Could we perhaps learn something from this when writing manuals for games? (Such things like: when writing a manual, make sure you have online version too)

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. Yeah, I agree. It is almost always true. One exception I can think of off the top of my head is Game Maker, its offline help docs were awesome. Ahh, good ol’ Game Maker.

    I don’t know if you’ve ever used an AutoDesk product (Especially AutoCAD or 3DSMax) but thier documentation is TERRIBLE. I don’t even think to check it anymore.


  2. I tend to use the index rather than the search, as like you said the search is invariably useless. If the manual is detailed enough, I always find the index/contents leads me to it.

  3. Hmm… I suppose it depends on how in depth the help files go. I find them really useful when they give examples of how to use or do something. I have to use Adobe Actionscript 3.0 Language and Components help files all the time at work. Sometimes, they provide code examples for nearly every function for a particular class. Sometimes, they only provide code examples collectively at the end of the help page for the particular class. And sometimes, they don’t provide code examples at all and it’s a bit frustrating. That’s when I try Google and see how other people solved the problem.

  4. I agree that often it can be about the search engine itself.

    It’s worth noting though that sometimes people have solved the certain problem and are discussing about in totally different forums (and giving non-documented workarounds).

  5. To me, it seems like the main problem isn’t whether the manual is on the internet or not, but the method which you use to access the information. In this case, the google search engine turned up much better results than the standard windows help search.

    I suppose there’s not too much to be done about standard windows help search, but perhaps a better search method could be implemented for an offline manual. Although, I bet the solution would have to be pretty creative to be integrated effectively as an offline help replacement. ;)

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