The Quick and Easy Guide to
Electronic Documents

Types of Documents
Electronic vs. Paper
Design Tips

Electronic documentation, on-line media, "soft" documents, e-communications all refer to the same thing: information designed for and distributed via technology. Sometimes electronic documents are merely on-line versions of paper documents. More often, however, electronic documents are specifically designed for the technology used to distribute them. This customization is usually required for optimal effectiveness and access to the information.

Types of Electronic Documents

Electronic Communications

These formats take the place of paper communications (letters, memos, etc.) and some verbal communications (phone, recorded messages, meetings). Just like the traditional methods they replace, they tend to be brief and focus on a specific function or goal.


"Virtual Documents"

These documents take the place of paper reference materials and are usually distributed with a product (software) or via Intranet/Internet. They may be electronic duplicates of paper documents or may be designed specifically for electronic use.


Hypertext Documents/Hypermedia

These documents are interactive, using hyperlinks, on-line forms and various script formats to provide a dynamic interface for the user. In other words, the document gives the user control over how the document is "read". These documents may include embedded media such as audio and video. Hypermedia is usually accessed via Intranet/Internet. Intranet refers to a closed network utilizing web browser access. Internet, or World Wide Web, refers to an open network consisting of interconnected smaller networks, accessed with web browsers.


Electronic vs. Paper Documentation

There are a number of significant differences between electronic documents and paper documents. These differences influence how each type of document is designed, delivered, and used. As a writer or a user of electronic documents, you should be aware of these differences.
Electronic Paper
Design "Open"; Dynamic; Interconnected; Non-liner; Dependent on Technology; Multimedia; Cost Effective*. "Closed"; Static; Cross-referenced: Linear; Independent of Technology; "Flat" Media (Text, Graphics); Cost Prohibitive*. 
Delivery "Immediate"; Cost Effective*; Upgrade Possible; User Controlled; Dependent on Technology. Delayed; Cost Prohibitive*; Replacement rather than Upgrade; Sender Controlled; Independent of Technology.
Use User Controlled; Targeted (Task Specific); Scanned; Interactive; Dependent on Technology. Writer Controlled; Comprehensive (Task & Background); Read for Detail; Passive; Independent of Technology.. 
*Cost varies depending on initial investment in equipment and tools, and on training staff to use the technology.

The most important of these differences is the shift to an open, dynamic document controlled by the user and the reliance on technology for electronic documentation.

Designing Electronic Documents

Like most forms of writing, design of electronic documents should begin with analysis of the purpose of the document and the audience's needs and expectations. What do you wish to communicate? Who is the audience? What are their goals for using the document? How will readers access and use the document? Does the audience have restrictions on access and use? Only after considering purpose and audience can technique be determined.

Tips for Designing Electronic Documents

For a further discussion of design issues, and a great example of a well designed electronic document, see Andrew Mundi's Principles of Graphic Design.
The Quick and Easy Guides for Writers

Written By: George Knox © 1999