online help usability

Subject: online help usability
From: Steve Owens <uso01 -at- EAGLE -dot- UNIDATA -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 8 Apr 1994 12:04:43 +0700

I said:

>>> My coworkers and I have been wondering if the word 'help' is
>>> still a appropriate name to use for online information. [...]
>> Indeed, it isn't, and I doubt it ever was. People use that
>> word for many things, including online quick-reference, online
>> tutorials, and computer-based training. Sometimes people do online
>> documentation - visually and organizationally identical to the printed
>> document, just delivered electronically with some minimal viewer
>> technology - and call that online help.

Greg Kushmerek (gkushmerek -at- acctg -dot- fin -dot- tufts -dot- edu) replied:

> Personally, I'd be leary of changing on-line information from 'help'
> to something else. My reason has more to do with conventions than
> anything. I believe that users have learned that 'help' is where
> to go when they have a problem.

I can agree with the general principle that "that class of
utilities for providing information (about how to use the application)
within the application" is expected to be under some sort of "help"
key or command. Users expectations have grown to this. On the
other hand, while I myself may not be able to change this, it certainly
could be changed. It all depends.

and Faith Weber (weber -at- easi -dot- enet -dot- dec -dot- com) said:

> I don't mean to throw a damper on this thread, but I don't
> buy the idea that changing the name of Help would encourage
> more people to use it. If you present me with a bear and
> say it's a puppy, I'm still going to run like hell.

I don't find that likely either, but I do think it's important
to use the proper terms to talk about and plan your online help system.
"help" is just too bloody vague, and it doesn't really give you any
sense of what this particular package is used for.

> Help is just like other documentation: most people (myself included!)
> only use it when they can't figure something out on their own, and
> are pretty desperate for information. If they can figure out

That depends upon your class of user. A large portion of the
users DO use online help, but only in limited applications (where it's
accessible and serves their purpose). I've come to the conclusion that
while the things people call "online help" fall into four categories:

quick reference
computer-based training (CBT)
online documentation

...most of the systems out there lack the capabilities to
perform CBT, and most aren't constructed well as tutorials (which have
a limited application in any event). Online documentation, I suspect,
doesn't get used much because it only provides an electronic copy of
what the user usually already has - a printed book. Those cases where
online docs make sense are usually specialized - for example,
CD-ROM-in-a-laptop for field engineers dealing with complex systems,
so they don't have to lug around a docu-crate the size of an

For the most part, the help systems that "succeed" are the
ones that try to be extremely usable quick reference material. When
the user needs to know the syntax to a command, he or she doesn't want
to wander through hyperlinks. I've observed this most closely in
myself (of course) but also in others. WP 5.0 (DOS) had pretty good
online help, because when I needed to know something I just hit F1 and
the key of the first letter of a keyword, then selected the entry from
the TOC displayed.

The UNIX 'man' pages serve this purpose well because they
allow me to quickly and simply do a keyword search, and to view the
syntax and options for a command. On the other hand, if I've never
used a command and have no experience with a similar command to draw
on, I'm more likely to find success in a printed book with a stronger
user guide orientation, or by talking to a more proficient UNIX user.

Why is it that people accept the need for reference guides,
tutorials, user guides, and educational workbooks, but can't see that
online help has the same diverse possibilities?

> a way to do what they want, even if it's not necessarily the
> best way, they'll just go ahead and do it. Unfortunately, many
> people feel very skeptical about their ability to find the
> information they really want, anyway. Also unfortunately, I think
> that skepticism is pretty realistic -- there's a lot of variation
> in organization schemes, terminology, etc. I'm an experienced user

One thing there isn't a lot of variation in is the quality - I
feel that most of the hypertextish online help systems I've
encountered are very poorly designed and organized. The user
interfaces are seldom easy to work with, and the links are few and far
between. One product that I really liked was the old MS-DOS Lotus
1-2-3 help system. I had to learn to use Lotus back in 1987, and I
learned most of what I needed to know by exploring their hypertext
help system.

On the other hand, I recently went on a little expedition
through Windows Help, and I found the interface (even with the
addition of a mouse for easier cursor movement) lame and the links

Steven J. Owens
uso01 -at- unidata -dot- com

Previous by Author: online help usability
Next by Author: CC:mail advice?
Previous by Thread: online help usability
Next by Thread: online help usability

What this post helpful? Share it with friends and colleagues:

Sponsored Ads