RE: shortsighted or realistic?

Subject: RE: shortsighted or realistic?
From: aklemmer -at- factset -dot- com
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 31 Mar 2003 13:17:15 -0500

David Hickey wrote:

> I'd like to think that everytime the techsupport phone doesn't ring,
> that's when someone found the answer in the online help/documentation
> (and maybe a techwriter angel gets his wings). I've tried to say that to
> programmers/techsupport, but for some reason, they see that as a
> laughable concept (although the "Nobody uses the docs" rallying cry is
> always completely believable).

For most of us, reality is somewhere between "nobody uses docs" and "every
time the phone doesn't ring, it's _because_ of the docs."

Because technical communication is what I do, I tend to have a very
techcomm-centric view of the world. But realistically if I were to gauge
how often I use online help/manuals -- it's just not very often. And it's
usually as a 2nd-to-last resort; here's my usual procedure when I need

1) Try it myself (usually trial-and-error)
2) Ask a colleague, friend, or spouse (I'm married to head IT-guy at our
company ;-)
3) Check the online help
4) Call tech support

However -- and this is the important point -- if a specific program's
online help or manaul has proven to be useful in the past, I will switch
steps 2 & 3. Unfortunately, not many online help systems have made the cut
to date. The short list includes:
* Macromedia Dreamweaver & Flash (mostly their support website, which is
stellar; but the online help & manuals are consistently above-average)
* (my blogging site)
* Adobe Acrobat (I loathe & despise the PDF _format_ of their online help,
but it's well-written & well-organized)
* MS Word, MS PowerPoint (online help, _not_ the Microsoft support website)

In contrast, I have found the following online help modules to be
profoundly UN-helpful and would not consult them again given any choice in
the matter:
* FrameMaker (strangely, their manuals are decent)
* Quark Xpress
* Lotus Notes
* MS Excel

So, in my job, I do everything I can to ensure that our documentation
(chiefly online) has as much in common with the first list as possible, and
as little in common with the second list as possible. Since I and my team
are not the same as the typical user of our software, this often involves
getting inside our customers' heads and determining what their likes &
dislikes are with respect to documentation.

> To better gauge how often the online help is being used, maybe we should
> insist a polling option embedded in the online help that sends an email
> (or a ping) to the company everytime someone uses the online help.
> Doesn't MS have a "Did you find this topic helpful" button in its help?
> At least that way, we'd be in a better position to gauge the usefulness
> of any product with more accurate data.

Couldn't hurt, so it may be worth a try if you've got management's buy-in
and the mad skillz to set it up; I've seen it on MS's website as well as a
couple of others. However, the response rate for those things is (I'm
guessing) not all that high, and probably skews negative (again, just a

Logging page-hits on online help is certainly a step in the right direction
(my company currently does so), although I'm not certain that such
statistics would convert the true 'non-believers' within a company into
disciples overnight. If the numbers corresponded with a decrease in
support-desk calls, then maybe. :-)

Abby Klemmer
FactSet Research Systems

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