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

Subject: RE: Looking for the Bingo (was Get to the point?)
From: "Michael West" <mwest -at- oz -dot- quest -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 4 Sep 2000 21:10:11 +1100

Dan Emory writes:

>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:

I certainly agree that the defects Dan mentions are far too
common. I've spent most of my career battling against that
kind of sloppy thinking. What I don't agree with is the notion
that the defect is somehow inherent in the medium.

WinHelp files can and should have summary and overview
topics as well as how-to topics and look-up reference topics.

True, online help files are not the ideal medium for EXTENDED
narratives, but they can certainly be made to point the user to
the appropriate document or other source for lengthy textual

I believe that for many software products, an ideal user-
assistance package consists of a "Getting Started" book that
introduces the product's features and uses at a fairly high-level,
plus a comprehensive online helpfile that gives the user both
functional summaries and fast links to how-to and other
reference information. By functional summaries I mean chiefly
short paragraphs with bullet lists and hyperlinks to details,
enhanced by "See also" references.

Another thing that Dan didn't mention is that a good helpfile should
also have a carefully constructed Table of Contents that leads
the user to functional groupings of topics. For this to work,
the topics MUST be named for "real" tasks -- the business
functions -- and NOT system-specific terms and functions.
For example, a "real" topic title is "Creating a New Customer
Record" -- NOT "The Create Customer screen" or "Using the
Create_Cust function" or some other gibberish that requires
the user to ALREADY know the information that he or she is
looking for (Duh!). The Table of Contents must speak the user's
language -- not the system's.

Again, this is just bad help design -- not a necessary result of
the online help medium.

Michael West
Melbourne, Australia

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