Re: Data on who uses Help?

Subject: Re: Data on who uses Help?
From: rudman -at- netscape -dot- com (Steve Rudman)
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 26 Mar 2002 00:58:40 -0800

Hart, Geoff wrote:

Steve Rudman wonders: <<Who uses help? Is there a typical profile for
someone who uses online help?>>

The only typical profile of any use is "someone who needs to know how to do
something", and the characteristics of that someone and the "what" vary from
audience to audience. But in all cases, these people may need overview
information (the steps required to complete a task), nitpicky detail (all
the switches or options for each step in the process), or a combination of
both at different times.

My questions arose while I was preparing a usability study of a help system---well, I was working with a usability expert to create the usability testing plan. It occurred to us that while there is a target user for the software, there is in reality a spectrum of users (even within our target user category) of the software. So while there is obvious and necessary overlap between the Ideal Target User of the Software and the Target User of Help, the overlap may not be exact. We had a gut feeling, nothing more than that, that only a certain segment of users of the software were also users of the help system. We could be wrong about that, or help usage is so idiosyncratic that there are no general profiling principles, or the profiles are only meaningful in the context of the software being used.

<<I'm also interested in articles that address whether the profile of the
target user for a software application is the same as the target user of the help.>>

You won't like this answer, but any such information is going to be highly
audience-dependant, and what you read might bear no relationship to your
actual audience. The target user of the help must obviously be the same as
the software user, since nobody is going to open the help unless they're
using the software. The only way to get a good impression of their needs is
to talk to them or perform some other form of audience analysis.

<<My impression is that most help targets a "beginner" user (here, beginner
means someone with minimal experience with the type of application being used).>>

That's too simplistic, and moreover, may have the overall situation
backwards. Ginny Redish, for instance, reported at the last STC conference
that in some of her surveys of help users, it was actually the experts who
used the help system; beginners often didn't know that it existed, didn't
know how to use it if they did know of its existence, or rapidly got
frustrated in trying to use it and went to bug the experts.

This is exactly the sort of real-world data I'm looking for. I'll try to track down a reference. Thanks for the pointer.

<<Is there a rationale for having "advanced" topics in online help, if the
people interested in such topics are not those who would typically use an
online help system?>>

The goal of any help system must be to provide assistance as rapidly and
directly as possible. If the user needs advanced information, that
information must be available. The problem with putting such information
outside the application (e.g., in a printed manual) is that users must then
seek out that manual and once it's found, go looking for the help topic; in
contrast, a good help system should present all topics relevant to the
current task at the click of a button. That's what makes the help context
sensitive or embedded.

Perhaps the user could be given some choice about the content that is presented. A user could set preference for beginning or advanced topics/content. Content marked in XML, e.g., could be displayed depending on the user's preference.

While a good help system should present all topics relevant to the current task, that's not the same as saying that the help system should therefore present all the information there is to know about a current task. There may be multiple ways of performing a task, but for the sake of clarity and to avoid bewildering the user with too much choice, the help content for beginners should provide one way of performing most tasks. Alternative ways ("tricks") could be the sort of info that advance users would be interested in seeing.

Thanks for your comments.


Steve Rudman
Manager, Information Design Group
Netscape Communications
rudman -at- netscape -dot- com

PC Magazine gives RoboHelp Office 2002 five stars - a perfect score!
"The ultimate developer's tool for designing help systems. A product
no professional help designer should be without." Check out RoboHelp at
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Data on who uses Help?: From: Hart, Geoff

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