Index/TOC Needed in HTML &/or Browser-Based Help?

Subject: Index/TOC Needed in HTML &/or Browser-Based Help?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Barbara Vega <BarbaraV -at- libertyims -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 19 May 2006 17:40:43 -0400

Barbara Vega reports: <<I have been told that in the Microsoft Vista version to come out, the TOC and Index have been eliminated, in favor of a much more efficient, improved search engine. Supposedly they have found that virtually no one uses the TOC or index any more, and this is much of their reasoning for eliminating it.>>

Did you hear this from a credible source? If true, it sounds like a brain-dead decision equivalent to the crippling of revision tracking in Word XP, but it's so radically out of touch with reality that I hesitate to accuse even Microsoft of such lunacy. <g> Or perhaps Microsoft has finally come up with the holy grail of search engine technology, and developed a search tool that can parse the documentation and figure out context?

I'm not up on the state of the academic art of artificial intelligence, but nothing I've read in the popular science press suggests that this kind of conceptual breakthrough is imminent. With modern technology, you can go quite a long way with stemming, exact vs. close matches, synonyms, proximity searches, and careful use of boolean terms (and, or, not), but this is way beyond the skill level of most computer users.

<<I have also heard that this is not a final final decision but that it is likely to be passed (I got this info in a seminar attended given by Weilenski (sp?) of WritersUA)>>

If that's correct, it's time we stood up for the users of our help systems and insisted that Microsoft include indexing and TOC capabilities in their help technology. If the search tool is so great, maybe these will be _less_ necessary, but until the new technology is proven to be even half as good as Microsoft thinks, I think it's a disastrous decision to remove two proven tools from our toolkit.

Any Microsofties out there who can tell us how to make our voices heard? Char, do you have the ear of anyone at Microsoft willing to listen to us?

<<At any rate, I do get complaints from time to time from users, that thus and so is wrong in the index, or that so and so should be in the index, etc, which says to me that at least some of our users use the index.>>

This follows my feelings. Indeed, I rarely find what I'm looking for using the search tools built into modern software, and have a much higher success rate when I have access to a half-competent or better index. That might be a criticism of my search skills, but given that I'm quite successful with judicious tweaking of Google, I'm not prepared to concede that point.

<<Moreover, our training personnel and professional services (support) personnel have requested that the TOC be reorganized based on customer comments/confusion.>>

By any chance are you generating the TOC automatically rather than designing one that supports the user's needs? Intelligent design of the topic titles and hierarchy can make an automatically generated TOC an effective tool, and if yours isn't working, you need to reconsider both aspects of your TOCs.

In my experience, users also benefit from relevant special-purpose TOCs in addition to the ones generated automatically. For example, in some software I documented a few years back, there were a couple different ways to approach the software metaphor, so I manually created a TOC to support both approaches, and included that as a help topic in the autogenerated TOC. It seems to have been very well received based on feedback from our testers and trainer, but I have no statistics to support that viewpoint.

<<Do you think it is worthwhile to expend energy in developing a really tight TOC, or one at all? Ditto for the index?>>

Put me down as an enthusiastic supporter of both, for the reasons listed above. Make both optional, but don't rob us of these valuable tools.

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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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Index/TOC Needed in HTML &/or Browser-Based Help?: From: Barbara Vega

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