Assessing the need for printed and online documentation: A study of customer preference and use

Karl L. Smart, Matthew E. Whiting, Kristen Bell DeTienne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


The document has become one of the few tangible deliverables of intellectual capital in an information age. As the value of business and technical communication has grown, the importance of designing information to meet customers' needs has increased. This article explores the design option of channel choice or medium selection (delivering information in print or electronic form) and reports the results of two studies that examine customers' preferences and use of printed manuals and online help, common documents used in the computer software industry. Through the past several years, many businesses have been anxious to move documentation online to reduce costs. However, research has not adequately addressed how users react to print versus online documentation or whether this approach is cost effective over time, taking into account customer satisfaction, repeat sales, and other business issues. The first study reports the results of a survey of 400 users of a word-processing application and their preferences and use of printed and online documentation. The second study uses an ethnographic approach, contextual inquiry (CI), to examine 18 subjects' use of printed and online documentation in context. Results showed that users prefer different types of documentation for different types of tasks. The implications of these findings for business communication practice and research are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)285-314
Number of pages30
JournalJournal of Business Communication
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2001


  • Computer Software Documentation
  • Contextual Inquiry
  • Customer Satisfaction
  • Information Value
  • Online Help
  • Printed Manuals


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