Re: Context-sensitive vs. navigational help

Subject: Re: Context-sensitive vs. navigational help
From: Steven Oppenheimer <Steven -at- OppenheimerCommunications -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 24 Jun 2004 11:52:55 -0400

I don't think this is a "versus" situation. A user, staring at a particular screen, might want help with that screen. So of course, when they press F1 for help, a help screen should pop up that displays the use(s) of the current application screen.

However, the same user might also want to search the help system for a particular features. (For example, for a payroll system, they might be looking for tax-related screens, so they search on "tax.") Of course, the search brings up a list of a handful of pertinent screens (i.e., the tax related screens). Or, in the course of procedural information on creating an employee payroll record, they might come to an instruction that says, "Now enter the employee's tax information." A link on that instruction takes them to the help for that tax screen.

However they get there, when they arrive at any one of those help screens, the very first thing they should read is something like:

"The Tax Information screen is used to enter all parameters which determine an employee's taxes and tax deductions. This screen is accessed by selecting Employee --> Basic Info, and selecting the Taxes & Deduction tab."

In other words, the help for just about all display screens should not only start with a basic conceptual introduction to the screen, but should also give the essential navigational information to find that screen. (A minor alternative is to include a link, near the top of each such help screen, which says, "How To Navigate To This Display". Then the user can click on the link, and a secondary help window can provide the navigation information. I think it's easier to just include the navigational information right in the main text of the screen help.)

I can't count the number of software applications I've used which neglected to include this basic, simple navigational info, and so made the process of learning and using the software an unnecessary exercise in frustration.

Steve O.

Subject: Context-sensitive vs. navigational help
From: Donna Marino <domarino -at- earthlink -dot- net>

A client of mine wants me to develop a context-sensitive help system for an application. This means that when a user is on a particular screen in the application and clicks Help or F1, a help topic for that screen is displayed. But the client is now concerned that if a user needs to navigate to a particular screen in the application, he/she won't know how to do that unless the help system also provides navigational instructions. How do writers handle this? Do you include separate topics for navigation in addition to providing context-sensitive help for each window? I'm afraid this will make the help system somewhat confusing.

Steven Oppenheimer, M.A.
Oppenheimer Communications
Technical and Business Writing: From Complexity To Clarity (SM)
Steven -at- OpComm -dot- com (301) 468-9233


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