Do online helps have chapter numbers?

Subject: Do online helps have chapter numbers?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 19 Apr 2005 09:08:53 -0400

Reena Misra wondered: <<My engineering manager wants me to include chapter numbers for each major topic heading in an online help (chm format). He argues that it's easy to refer to a chapter number specially while answering customer support calls.>>

That's an interesting point, now that I think of it. If part of your company's technical support script is to refer someone to the correct page or section of the printed manual, online help provides no comparable "hooks", and it can be quite awkard to have to describe a long navigation path to get to a topic, or explain which of several index keywords to click on, or what phrase to search on. Cool idea!

<<So, should an online help have chapter numbers?>>

It's certainly true that a chapter number can't hurt, but on the other hand, assigning chapters to something that is inherently nonlinear can be misleading if the chapters suggest a structure that doesn't exist. If your help is structured in such a way that it _does_ fall naturally into chapters (e.g., if at least part of the system is intended for linear browsing, as in the case of a printed manual that has been dumped online and supplemented with context-sensitive links), then it's easy to add chapter and section numbers to your topics, and ensure that those numbers appear in the table of contents for the help system.

However, if you've got a truly nonlinear structure, that clearly won't work. The question then becomes the following: How can you meet the design goal of making it easy for tech support to refer to a single help topic amidst hundreds or thousands of other topics? I don't have an easy answer, but I do have a few thoughts that might lead to one. It's certainly possible and even easy to assign a unique ID number to each help topic (you're already doing this when you assign a topic ID to permit context sensitive links), and your support staff can then simply refer to that number.

The problem with numbers is that they're difficult for humans to remember, and they provide no mental "hooks" that will help someone find that same topic again: compare the task, 6 months after your call to tech support, of looking for "the print topic" versus "topic ID 2948765412". Plus, as my silly example shows, engineer/programmer types tend to like long, complicated numbers, with far more digits than are necessary. Avoid the temptation to create hugely long numbers if you choose a numeric approach. Smaller numbers are much more user-friendly.

Words are better, though. Compare "go to help topic 123456" with "go to Chapter 5, on printing, and look up the section named 'print what' for details". Which is easier to understand and use? The answer suggests a partial solution: Create a simple coding system for each type of help topic, and use that to "assemble" a list of keywords. For example, you might choose the keywords "menu" and "dialog" to define help topics that fall under the groups for menu choices and dialog boxes, respectively. You could then add additional keywords such as the name of the menu choice or dialog box. You could then tell the user to look up the following keywords, for one example: "menu" plus "File" plus "Print". This would quickly find the help topic for the Print command.

This would work particularly well if you supplemented it with an expanding and contracting "tree" structure to provide access to individual topics. That's the kind of structure that uses little [+] icons beside a topic to indicate that you can expand it, and little [-] icons beside a topic to collapse it and conceal the choices. So you might see something like the following:
[+] Dialog boxes
[-] Menus
[-] File menu
[+] Edit menu
[+] Tools menu
[+] Tutorials

<<Besides, online help of popular tools do not have chapter numbers!>>

"Nobody else does it" is a poor justification for not doing something innovative that will help your audience. In my opinion, there's very little modern online help from Microsoft, Adobe, et al. that I find to be of high quality (no offence to my fellow listmates, I hope). Imitating poorly written and designed help systems only perpetuates the problem.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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Do online helps have chapter numbers?: From: Reena Misra

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