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Last modified: Sunday, September 01, 1996 

Instructions for using a computer device or program. Documentation can appear in a variety of forms, the most common being manuals. When you buy a computer product (hardware or software), it almost always comes with one or more manuals that describe how to install and operate the product. In addition, many software products include an online version of the documentation that you can display on your screen or print out on a printer. A special type of online documentation is a help system , which has the documentation embedded into the program. Help systems are often called context-sensitive because they display different information depending on the user's position (context) in the application.

Documentation is often divided into the following categories:

  • installation: Describes how to install a program or device but not how to use it.
  • reference: Detailed descriptions of particular items presented in alphabetical order. Reference documentation is designed for people who are already somewhat familiar with the product but need reminders or very specific information about a particular topic.
  • tutorial: Teaches a user how to use the product. Tutorials move at a slower pace than reference manuals and generally contain less detail.
  • A frequent lament from computer users is that their documentation is inscrutable. Fortunately, this situation is improving, thanks largely to advances in help systems and online tutorials. These forms of documentation make it much easier to deliver the specific information a user needs when he or she needs it.

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