Re: Drop-down hotspots and usability

Subject: Re: Drop-down hotspots and usability
From: Lyndsey Amott <amott -at- docsymmetry -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 26 Mar 2005 13:20:59 -0600

Anthony Hernandez asked:
We're redoing our help system and have decided to
use drop-down hotspots throughout most of our pages.
Do hotspots deter or enhance readability?
Lyndsey replies:
I did a usability study for my last client in which I recommended that they start using drop-down hotspots in their help pages. The recommendation had two purposes: first, to reduce the number of help files the company maintained; second, to improve the readability and navigability of the help files.

The company currently maintains over 7,000 help files and this number is sure to increase. By using drop-down hotspots, they could reduce the number of help files they maintain by a third or more.
From the users' POV, each help topic currently comprises two to four links to other topics. By combining these other topics in a single topic and using hotspots, users would not get lost or become irritated by being forced to bop all over the place to get an answer to a simple question.

When I did the usability study, I did not have an opportunity to observe users using the help system, so it cannot be called a true usability study. Nevertheless, I started from the POV that usability is not only about the users' experience, but also about the writers' ability to maintain the files. I looked for current trends in help systems, focusing in part on how Microsoft's help system has evolved over the last three versions. One change is that window-level context sensitivity no longer exists; that is, the question mark that used to cause a little pop-up to appear when you dragged it over an area in a dialog box no longer exists. This information now appears in a single help topic that makes use of hotspots. You can test this in Word by going to, for example, Tools > Options. In Word 2003, the question mark has disappeared from the dialog box. When you click help, you will see a hotspot for each section of the dialog box; each one expands to display the former pop-up help in a list format. Whether this is more usable for the user is debatable, but it does make the help system easier to maintain. It is my belief that the changes that Microsoft has made to their help systems have been motivated almost entirely by the need to reduce the number of help topics that need to be maintained.

Other trends:

* Dock the help to the right of the app or embed help in the app or
do both.
* Include a "Was this information helpful" section in each help file.
* Include basic help with the app; send the user to the company web
site for more detailed info and latest info.
* In embedded help, use a smallish type size (see users read
more carefully when the type size is small; they tend to scan when
the type size is large).
* Reduce the number of help topics (e.g., Word 2000 has 33 topics in
the Contents pane; Word 2003 has 16).
* Get rid of pop-up help.
* Reduce the amount of real-estate used by the help (e.g., the Word
2000 help window is 20 cm in width; Word 2003 is 7.5 cm).

Lyndsey Amott

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