Help indexes as appendixes
?The most important part of an online help system is
the index?that?s sometimes the only way your readers
can find out what?s in there and get to what they?re
For a long time I said this too, but I've begun to question it. On my last contract we were finding some anecdotal evidence from the field that our audience (control system engineers) preferred the search mechanism to an index. Partly because indexes are rare on the Web and search facilities are common (ubiquitous if you count browser-supported searching the current page), I think this might be a growing trend. If so, the effort that should go into indexing might be better spent on finding ways to support full text search. For instance, the problems of synonyms (a full-text search can't find words that aren't used in the text) and very extensively used terms (which generate unmanageable lists of topics) might be addressed in a terminology topic.
I feel peculiar saying this, because I regularly consult indexes before ToCs and I actually like indexing. But if you think of indexes as providing alternative pathways into information, then maybe it's time to recognise that one of the foundation ideas of hypertext was that readers could create their own pathways. For large sets of diverse information I think good indexes could still add value, provided they are maintained and updated. But most software help systems aren't large or diverse, and the indexes to most that I've used haven't been very good.
Anyone know of evidence from the field of how people actually use indexes to online help? In this context, I don't think personal preference counts. I use help indexes all the time - that's how I can say that they aren't very good. But in this case I think Techwhirlers, and especially TechWhirlers who are also indexers, are probably less than usually typical software users.
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