Comparing and Contrasting Printed User Guides and Online Help Systems

Prior to planning a help system, it is important to understand the differences and similarities between an online help system and a printed user guide, as well as the benefits and constraints of both systems.

A User's Guide or Manual is a technical communication document used to give assistance to individuals using a particular system. Although technical writers are the primary developer's of user guides, programmers, product or project managers, and technical staff members are also capable of writing a user's guide. Often one staff member, for example, a programmer, will double as a technical writer in addition to his/her primary duties in a particular organization or with a specific project.

User guides are most often associated with electronic goods, computer hardware and software, and some consumer goods (for example, toys or furniture). They are printed material read in sequence, whereas online help consists of pieces of information that is accessible when necessary and in some cases, contains more information.

Online Help is topic-oriented, procedural or reference information delivered through computer software. Online help gives assistance in the use of a
computer software application, operating system, or any subject for which online help may be needed. Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) and Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) are among the many formats used to create a Help. Newer content management tools, including WikiSpaces and WordPress, may also be used to create online help. Some of these newer tools have even evolved, as WordPress did from a blogging site to a diverse, user-driven content management system capable of doing much more than it was originally created for.

Online Help System
Printed User Guide
Accessible 24x7
Accessible only if the computer is operating
Included with each software installation.
Accessible 24x7
Accessible even when the computer or software is unavailable.
May need a guide for each user.
Information type
Audio aids
Visual aids
URL links to outside sources
Can have examples.
Can be interactive.
Can have examples.
Tends to have more detail.
Ease of Use
May require a learning curve.
Accessible with simple key strokes.
No learning curve required.
Ability to write notes in the guide.
Updates can be done in one place.
Requires reprinting.
Revision Tracking
Depending on the software used, built in to software.
Requires creating a revision tracking system.
Can require physical or virtual space if retaining older copies.
Space Requirements
No physical space needed.
Computer specifications needs to comply with software specifications.
Requires physical space.
Depending upon software used, can limit to authorized access.
Accessible to everyone.
Hardware Needed
Depends on specifications of software used.
Pricing Considerations
Personnel salaries
Software (one time purchase)
Personnel salaries
In-house or outsourced printing costs (for each print run)


Original Author:Linda Page
Contributors: Tammy Fitzpatrick, Inez Funchess, Sandra Ramirez
Editors: Inez Funchess, Sandra Ramirez, Tammy Fitzpatrick