What is more effective, a print document or an online document? It wasn't all that long ago that print documents would definitely have been voted more effective, especially considering the poor quality of computer monitors and slow internet speeds. (Remember trying to pull up a document on a modem?)
Given the speed of today's internet and mobile device support, print documents are likely going the way of the dinosaur. Online documents have several advantages to their print counterparts. For instance, eBooks reflow to fit the user's device (think about how popular eBook readers such as the Amazon Kindle have become in just the past few years). Online documents are searchable, typically contain hyperlinks for easy navigation, often include videos and/or animations, and some even contain interactivity in the form of eLearning simulations created in Adobe Captivate or Articulate Storyline.
There are millions upon millions of print documents around the business world that would gain new life if they were online. The major challenge in moving from unstructured to structured documentation, or page layout to reflowing text, or paper to online, is the shift in mindset required. Simply put, many old design paradigms used for print documents don't fit in new media design.
There are many reasons for converting paper documents to online documents such as cost, efficiency of updating, document control, accessibility, and discoverability. Surprisingly, for the custodians of paper documents charged with managing the conversion, there is often a reluctance to embrace the migration from print to online. For those custodians, the paper version remains the primary document, and the online version is secondary.
Even if the paper custodians agree to take the paper documents online, much time and effort is spent trying to imitate the paper design in the online design. For example, the paper documents are scanned and converted to PDF. While aPDF will work in an online world, a PDF is really just a digital replica of the paper document. While a PDF may open on a tablet or smartphone, it won't re-flow to fit the user's screen like an eBook.
If you're trying to convince the "powers that be" to make the move from print documentation to an online document, consider the following:
The text used in the print document may require a specific font and font size. When online content is displayed for the user, the user's device may have limited font capabilities. Even if the device is capable of displaying the font, if the user doesn't have that specific font installed on the device, the font displayed will be the browser's default. For instance, you have used Futura as the font for your content. If the user accesses your content via a web browser and does not have the Futura font on their computer, the browser will likely display Times New Roman instead.
Paragraphs may need to be indented by a specific amount. While setting up a specific indentation is easy in a print layout tool such as Adobe InDesign, the user's device may have limits to how indentations are displayed.
Headings may have to be sequentially numbered. While many print layout tools allow you to easily number paragraphs, those automatic numbers may not display properly online.
You may be required to include footnotes. While footnotes are easy to add to print documents, they're a problem online. Since there really isn't an end to a page online, where would the footnotes go?
Page numbers may no longer be valid. If your print document includes cross references (such as, "For more information, see page 11"), you could end up with a mess. If your print content is displayed as an eBook, the content that was on page 11 could now be located on page 22. If the text on the page tells the user to reference page 11, but the text is actually on page 22, you can imagine the trouble you'll have.
The graphics could be huge. In the print document, high resolution photos were used. They look great on paper. However, they're so big (in megabytes, not width or height), they'll take forever to download over the Internet if you leave them as-is. To use the images, you'll need to allow time to save the images as online versions (in jpeg or png format). When you do, the images will likely lose quality. Will they still look good?
If you do decide to migrate your print documents to the online world, off-the-shelf authoring tools such as Adobe RoboHelp and MadCap Flare will help make the process easy. Both tools allow you to quickly convert printed documentation (especially Word documents) into online documents. Both tools support cascading style sheets that handle fonts, colors, paragraph numbering, and indentation. And both tools allow you to create master pages complete with headers and footers. Nevertheless, there are limits to what any authoring tool can do when it comes to recreating the look and feel of a print document, so look into the limitations of each tool prior to moving forward.
What's your take on print documents as compared to online documents? Is print doomed? Which medium do you think is more effective, print or online? What tool do you use to convert from print to online? Can you share instances/examples where you think print documents are more effective than online documents? Feel free to post your opinion as comments below.