Users editing help files?

Subject: Users editing help files?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 02 Nov 2005 09:21:25 -0500

Evelyn Dunn wondered: <<My manager has received a request to let some of our users add policy information to existing Help topics. While I am willing to add this information, the group in question does not want to take this approach.>>

The question that should always be asked when advocating changes to a system that works well is the following: What problem are we trying to solve? The inability to answer that question tells you the idea is ill-considered. The ability to answer it clearly and objectively will often tell you what needs to be done to solve the problem, or at least focus your attention on the right problem.

<<We treat our Help files as production data and the files are currently locked down. I have suggested that they use hyperlinks but they insist they want to embed the information.>>

To me, this sounds like a recipe for disaster. You quickly end up with the Wikipedia problem (lots of information of dubious quality added to a core of sound information). It might be very useful to link the help system to a wiki of some sort so that you accomplish both goals: your goal (that the core Help is sound, objective, and high quality), but and the goal of those who requested authoring rights (i.e., the wiki provides an immediate way for these people to add content). Subsequently, you and your team can take the best of the wiki content and add it to future generations of the help, while ignoring the useless stuff that gets wiki'ed.

Moreover, if nobody is responsible for quality assurance of the additions, there's no way to find out why the changes are being suggested. Simply making a change without thinking about why is at best a way to accumulate subjectively useful clutter that may be irrelevant or actively harmful to many users of the information if the author misunderstood something. It can also miss out on a great opportunity to understand the reasons behind the addition; understanding these reasons can sometimes reveal serious flaws in an existing process, or opportunities to greatly improve an adequate but not stellar process.

<<The department in question has a high turnover, they would not be training their users on our Help system, and few of them have good html skills, not to mention they know nothing of technical writing.>>

This also raises a large red warning flag. Among other things, people who have no investment in the future of the system have little reason to be careful in emending it since their goal is solely to satisfy their short-term needs, irrespective of anyone else's needs.

On the other hand, the "high turnover" suggests a wonderful opportunity: the things these people propose adding may give you strong clues to ways that your help system is failing neophyte users. Pay attention to their suggestions and you may find a way to usefully reinvent your help system so as to improve its effectiveness for this audience.

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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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Users Editing Help Files: From: Evelyn Dunn

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