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The Image of User Instructions: Comparing Users' Expectations of and Experiences with an Official and a Commercial Software Manual

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Purpose: The market for (paid-for) commercial software manuals is flourishing, while (free) official manuals are often assumed to be neglected by users. To investigate differences in user perceptions of commercial and official manuals, we conducted two studies: one focusing on user expectations and one on user experiences.

Method: The first study was an online experiment, in which two groups of participants answered questions about their expectations of a (commercial or official) manual. The second study was a 2x2 experiment, with perceived source (commercial or official) and the actual content of the instructions (commercial or official) as independent variables, and task performance and users' judgments as dependent variables.

Results: The first study showed that users have different expectations of commercial and official manuals, and overall think more positively about a commercial manual. The second study showed that perceived source had a significant effect on task performance: Participants worked better when they thought they used a commercial manual. No differences were found regarding participants' judgments of the manual.

Conclusion: Our research indicates a potential image problem of official user manuals. Even though we found no evidence for a lower quality of the official manual's content, users' relatively negative expectations of an official manual may discourage them from using the official user instructions. The second study showed that the perceived source (commercial/official) may even affect the actual task performance of users.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: February 1, 2017

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  • Technical Communication, the Society's journal, publishes articles about the practical application of technical communication theory and serves as a common arena for discussion by practitioners. Technical Communication includes both quantitative and qualitative research while showcasing the work of some of the field's most noteworthy writers. Among its most popular features are the helpful book reviews. Technical Communication is published quarterly and is free with membership.
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