Looking for the Bingo (was Get to the point?)

Subject: Looking for the Bingo (was Get to the point?)
From: Dan Emory <danemory -at- primenet -dot- com>
To: Bruce Byfield <bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com>, "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 04 Sep 2000 01:50:33 -0700

At 09:17 PM 9/3/00 -0700, Bruce Byfield wrote:

However, maybe I should state things more clearly: readers of
technical information rarely read docs all the way through. They
skim until they find a section likely to contain what they want,
then read that. Usually, they read no more of that section than is
necessary to solve the problem they are trying to solve.
I call this kind of skimming activity "Looking for the Bingo."
That's Bingo, not Bimbo.

The sequences of steps (it would look better in a flow chart)
for getting to Bingo are described for both well-done printed
manuals and for a typical WinHelp-type keyword/topic
help system.

A. In a printed technical manual that is reasonably thorough
and complete, and which has a detailed Table of Contents
(including lists of table and figures) plus a good multi-level index:

1. Scan through the Table of Contents and Index for the most likely
possibilities. If you find some items there which look promising,
you can proceed to Step 2. If you didn't find anything, scan the
Table of Contents and index for less likely possibilities.
If you find something, proceed to step 2. If not, and you feel
you've exhausted all the possibilities, proceed to step 3.

2. Go to each of the page references you found in step 1, and scan
them for what you're looking for. If you find it, that's Bingo and
you're done. If none of them pan out, go back to step 1 if you feel
you haven't exhausted all the possibilities in the Table of Contents
and index. If you feel you've exhausted all the possibilities,
proceed to step 3.

3. Steps 1 and 2 yielded nothing of value. Now, you must rely on
your knowledge of how the book is structured. Begin by scanning
through the most likely places in the structure. If you find what
you're looking for, that's Bingo, and you're done. If not,
begin scanning in less likely places. If you find what you're looking
for, that's Bingo, and you're done. If not, and you feel you've
exhausted all the possibilities, go to step 4.

4. If you've used the book frequently, you've probably become
aware of the book's (and therefore the authors') idiosyncracies.
Now, think like the authors, and ask yourself "What improbable place
would those idiots who wrote this thing be likely to have put the
information I'm looking for?" Start scanning through those
improbable places. If the document is thorough, one of those
places will almost certainly be where the information is.
That's Bingo, and you're done.

Note that, in the above-described procedure, the user is
reasonably confident that the desired nugget of information is
in somewhere in the book, and persistence will usually
pay off.

B. A typical keyword/topic-based help system like WinHelp
consists almost entirely of procedures with hardly any
useful supporting descriptive information or overviews that are
are often what users need. Users are typically much less
confident that persistence will pay off. In this type
of system, clicking on help produces a keyword/topic index,
which also gives users the "alternative" of typing in word(s)
they think are most descriptive of what the user is seeking:

1. Open the help and type in the keyword you think best
describes the thing you're looking for. There's about a 60%
chance that the search will come up empty. If you do get some hits,
there's about a 50% chance that none of them have any relevance
whatsoever to the answer you're looking for. Each time you go to
a link and strike out, you must return to the index and try the next
link. If you do find what you need, that's Bingo, and you're done.
If not, think up some different keywords you might try, and repeat
the process.When you get weary of this, go to step 2.

2. Re-open the help, and this time don't bother to type in anything.
Instead, scroll through the "topics" in the index, try to find one
that might be relevant, and click on it. Each time you fail to find
what you're looking for you must return to the index, look up
another topic, and try again. If you lucky enough to find what
you need (unlikely), that's Bingo, and you're done. If not, try
another topic that might be relevant. When you get weary
of this, proceed to step 3.

3. Evaluate your situation. The thing has no structure, so
you cannot form a mental model of the help system. Even if you
could, it wouldn't help, because the only way to get to anything
is through the stupid index, and that's already failed to give you any
answers. Is there anything to be gained by trying to understand
the thinking processes of the idiots who produced the index?
Not likely. What good does it do you to understand the
mentality of people who clearly made no effort to perceive
what a user in your situation needs, and instead simply produced
a topic list made up of the arcane titles of the individual help
pages? Proceed to step 4.

4. Call tech support. Describe your problem, and ask them
what topic in the index you should click on to find what you
need. If you are given a topic name by tech support (unlikely),
and that topic actually exists in the index (even more unlikely),
go to that topic. If you find what you're looking for, that's
Bingo, and you're done. If not, proceed to step 5.

5. Call tech support again. Inform them that you have
deleted all Winhelp files from your system because they're
worthless, and were just taking up disk space. Demand that
they give you the solution to your problem without any reference
whatsoever to WinHelp.

Are well-done printed manuals usually better and faster
than typical keyword/topic-based help systems for
finding the specific information needed by users? No doubt
about it.

Are there better ways than keyword/topic-based help systems
to produce on-line help that, unlike those systems, provide the
kind of links that put users in the driver's seat, and are structured
in such a way that users can form useful mental models of the
knowledge base? Absolutely. Are very many companies
doing it a better way? NOT.

| Nullius in Verba |
Dan Emory, Dan Emory & Associates
FrameMaker/FrameMaker+SGML Document Design & Database Publishing
Voice/Fax: 949-722-8971 E-Mail: danemory -at- primenet -dot- com
10044 Adams Ave. #208, Huntington Beach, CA 92646
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