Users' complaints about online help (long)

Subject: Users' complaints about online help (long)
From: Jean Weber <jean -at- wrevenge -dot- com -dot- au>
To: Australian Technical Writers List <austechwriter -at- egroups -dot- com>, Technical Writers List <TECHWR-L -at- LISTS -dot- RAYCOMM -dot- COM>, "WinHelp Discussion List" <WINHLP-L -at- ADMIN -dot- HUMBERC -dot- ON -dot- CA>
Date: Fri, 21 Apr 2000 07:14:41 +1000

Apologies for the cross-posting, but I wanted to give everyone a chance to contribute. I'm sure a lot of relevant information is in various archives, but I can't think what to search for that isn't too vague (and would return hundreds of irrelevant posts). I didn't find anything in the TECHWR-L summaries.

I'm doing research for a book I'm writing on editing online help. I've got a list of users' common complaints about online help, but I'm a bit short of specific examples from publically-available programs (by which I mean "for sale or distribution to the general public" rather than "developed for in-house use"). Also I'm sure that your collective knowledge and opinions include some other complaints that I've forgotten. So I'd like to hear from you about your complaints, preferably with a specific example. Off-list is fine (I'll summarize), but this might be of sufficient general interest to have a discussion on-list.

To get you started, here's my list:
1. I can't find what I'm looking for.
2. I can't figure out what's going on. How did I get here? Where do I go next?
3. I'm afraid to do something, because I can't figure out what will happen if I do it.
4. There's too much detail; I don't want/need/understand all this stuff.
5. There's not enough detail; this only tells me the obvious.
6. I can't get to the help when I want it. This dialog doesn't have a help button. F1 brings up a lot of irrelevant stuff.
7. The program isn't working the way the help says it should, but I can't find out what to do about it.
8. The help only tells me what the system does; it doesn't tell me how to get my work done.
9. I want a bigger picture of what this program can do; maybe I'm missing out on something, but I don't know what questions to ask.
(These are in addition to a collection of copy-editing and formatting sins, like the misuse of numbered and bulletted lists, steps in a procedure being out of order, unexplained jargon, tables and figures that are far too wide for the help window, and so on and on and on.)

An example of #7 is the MSWord help for deleting comments from a file. Even the troubleshooting section says merely "select the comment and click Delete" -- but I've discovered that under certain circumstances that doesn't work. Not only could I not figure out what those circumstances were, there was no hint of what to do next or how to avoid this problem in the future. (Turns out -- thank you, Tom Campbell, for solving this mystery for me -- that if you have "track changes" turned on, the comments can't be deleted! Or at least someone else's comments can't be deleted; I've successfully deleted ones that I inserted.)

For a subset of #1, I have quite a collection of indexing problems from Eudora Pro, up to and including release 4.2, but poor ToCs are also big winners in that category.

I look forward to your contributions. Thank you in advance.

Regards, Jean
Jean Hollis Weber
mailto:jean -at- wrevenge -dot- com -dot- au
The Technical Editors' Eyrie

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