Re: Documenting complex tasks in Online Help

Subject: Re: Documenting complex tasks in Online Help
From: "Paul Strasser" <paul -dot- strasser -at- windsor-tech -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 9 Sep 2002 13:31:43 -0600

It's an interesting dilemma, one that I've encountered a lot. The first
thing I consider is exactly how the user is going to complete the task.
Will they start at screen 1 of 5 and complete all the screens sequentially,
or can they jump around? Are users familiar with the actual task at hand or
are they all newbies to the functionality (for example, is this software
replacing some paper forms, or is this for general circulation to those
unfamiliar with the task?)

Generally, I prefer the simplicity of your first option - have a link at the
top of the help topic that states something like: "This window is the third
of five windows that must be completed to finish the XYZ task. For an
overview of the entire XYZ task, click [OVERVIEW]" - or something like that.
To get them back to the help topic for the third window, just use the [back]
macro somewhere on the Overview page.

At the bottom of the third window help topic you can have another link - to
the help for the subsequent window.

Also remember that many users prefer - and expect - context-sensitive help.
When they have the third window open and they click [F1] they expect the
help for the third window to appear. You talk about documenting the Final
Task. I'm not sure that's the right mindset. You are documenting exactly
how a user completes a particular window. So if someone opens the "final
task" window, just have a link at the top that says. "in order to complete
Final Task you must have first completed Window 1 through Window 5. Click
here for an Overview..."

You shouldn't have to write thousands of topics, just because there are
thousands of possible permutations for completing the task. There are (one
hopes!) considerably fewer than 1000 windows that must be documented, plus
overview topics for each task.

Paul Strasser
Windsor Technologies, Inc.
2569 Park Lane, Suite 200
Lafayette, Colorado 80026
Phone: 303-926-1982
FAX: 303-926-1510
E-mail: paul -dot- strasser -at- windsor-tech -dot- com

> This is my first post to TECHWR-L, so I apologize in advanced if this
> question has already been discussed.
> My question is: in a online Help project, what do you find is the best
> approach to document very complex tasks, tasks in which one or more
> tasks must be completed before the final task can be done?
> I had a project recently for a web-based application in which the user
> often have to go through 3-5 operations or screens before they arrived at
> the screen that allowed them to do a particular function, or "final task".
> I basically felt I had two options in documenting the final task:
> 1. Prefacing the task with the following hyperlink:
> First, do this task: <hyperlink to task>
> OR
> 2. Document ALL the steps required from the first screen to the last.
> The advantage of the first approach is that it considerably lowers the
> maintenance and the size of the Help project. The problem is that the user
> may end up "clicking backwards" several times, working their way from the
> final task screen to the initial task screen, which is very cumbersome and
> difficult. The user would have trouble getting a proper idea of ALL the
> steps required to do the final task, from start to finish.
> The advantage of the second approach is that it clearly shows the user how
> to do the task from start to finish. But again the problem is that it
> greatly enlarges the size of the Help document. Often there would be
> ways to do one of the preceding tasks. Since there were hundreds of tasks
> this project, it could lead exponentially to a document containing
> if not thousands of pages!
> The solution I found was to use a mixed approach of these two. I
> all the steps where possible, but occasionally I did use method 1. I tried
> to keep the number of clicks to a minimum, though.
> Has anyone had a similar experience? What was your solution?
> Thanks!
> Andrew T. Brooke
> abrooke -at- pathcom -dot- com

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Documenting complex tasks in Online Help: From: Andrew T. Brooke

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