Task-based vs. descriptive online help

Subject: Task-based vs. descriptive online help
From: Christine -dot- Anameier -at- seagate -dot- com
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 7 Mar 2001 11:10:22 -0600

I'm revising a help system (specifically, Webhelp) that is mostly what I
think of as "guided tour" online help: big screen captures from the
application that you click on if you want to know what a particular
interface element does. Click on the Name field, and you get a little popup
blurb explaining that the user's name goes there, etc. I'm told the help
system was built from a spec.

My own inclination ("overwhelming urge" might be more accurate) is to
revise the help radically and focus it on user tasks. If I do this, I see
two options for the "click to see what this button here does" sort of
(1) Remove it entirely.
(2) Put it in topics separate from the task-based topics, and link to

Based on articles I've read, and on my own experience as a user, my
impression has been that users turn to online help when they're in the
middle of doing something and they run into trouble. I think the question
in their minds is going to be "How do I _______" rather than "What is the
Name field for?"

I'd like to hear what other writers think: would the guided-tour stuff be
helpful to users? If so, is it helpful in a "when in doubt, leave it in;
somewhere out there there's somebody who will want it" way, or can anyone
point me to some research that indicates this kind of documentation really
is valuable to users?


(opinions expressed here are solely my own; my cat disagrees)


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