Task-based or reference?

Subject: Task-based or reference?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 8 May 2001 10:36:13 -0400

Kelly Williamson is <<...trying to decide whether to produce task-based
online help or reference-based online help, as there are LOTS of
reference/display only fields. We're talking screens that have 20 display
fields and 1 enterable field.>>

To me, this seems like an ideal example of a situation that combines a need
for both types of help, rather than simply letting us present a single type.
My preference in such situations is to provide a help topic with three
- an introduction to the overall screen based on the user's task (e.g., "you
have 20 fields displayed; add them up, and if the total exceeds your
Predefined Comfort Level, enter 'No deal, Monty' in the Decision field")
- field-level help for the display-only fields (e.g., "your greed factor is
currently set at 3 (with a maximum of 10)")
- field-level help for the data-entry fields (e.g., "please do not enter
profanity in this field").

<<However, since we have so many fields on the screen that are display

This is a good situation for popup ("tool-tips", "what's this") type of
help, if that's something you can arrange to provide. If not, you should
also closely examine the fields to see whether you can build affordances
(clues to the meaning and content of the field) into the interface itself so
that you minimize the need to consult the online help.

<<Whadd'ya think? I think (hope) the screens are intuitive enough (and they
will have training) that they're not going to look to the help for "how to
do x".>>

Not generally a good assumption unless you're confident that they'll be
using the fields regularly immediately after their training. Numbers vary,
but I've seen pessimistic statements from trainers who claimed that students
forget 75% of what they learned during training within 2 weeks if they don't
immediately begin using what they've learned. That number is meaningless (I
can't cite a source), but the larger observation ("use it or lose it") is
quite valid.

<<another factor is that this is page-level help that will be launched
directly from the appropriate page. (We can't do field-level for this

You can _always_ do field-level help; it's just that you can't always make
it part of the interface. The trick is to organize the information in the
help topic so that every field is documented, and this information is
arranged either alphabetically (to facilitate looking up the information in
a long list of fields) or to match the screen layout (in a short list of
fields, or if you create an image map, with each field linked to a popup

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"User's advocate" online monthly at

Tarzan's rule of data processing: Never let go of
one vine until you have a solid hold of the next.--Anon.


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