Reply to "Why do help?"

Subject: Reply to "Why do help?"
From: Trevor Grayling <TREVOR -at- MDLI -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 20 Sep 1994 17:36:17 -0800


RE your message, "Why do help?" (appended below)


1. SITE-LICENSED SOFTWARE: Our software is used by between 10 and 300
users within any one, large company. Our research shows that
distribution of paper documentation within such companies is very
spotty: Some overworked supervisor is responsible for ordering and
distributing perhaps a couple of hundred sets of docs; so it doesn't
get done very well. The end result is that approximately 30% of end
users may end up with only partial docs or none at all. Add in the
problem of updating the docs at the next release, and you can see that
an easily distributed help file (via network) is a definite
improvement, and it is the ONLY solution for complete coverage.

2. DECISION TREE: Our software is very complex, requiring many
decisions by the end user at every step. Consider, for example,
getting a form to view database data (one of the easier tasks). You
can read in a previously saved form, import one from elsewhere, edit
the existing form, or create an entirely new one. A well-designed help
system shows ALL the possibilities and, when the user has made a
choice, shows ONLY the step-by-step procedure for that choice. Paper
documents have to use a cumbersome and extensive system of
cross-references to achieve the same effect.

3. NO SIX-FOOT BOOKCASE REQUIRED: Software gets more and more powerful
(that is, complex) all the time. This requires more and more
documentation to provide a comprehensive explanation of everything it
can do. Our system requires 12 manuals. However, the average user only
needs 10% of all those pages (which are never the same 10% as the next
user). The beauty of online help is that the user sees only what they
need to see and nothing else. This is a great help with user
perception as to the "usability" of the software.

4. RESOURCES: In the past, we had to spread our resources between help
and paper docs. This needlessly duplicated most of the information and
forced us to short-change either the help or the paper. By doing help
only, we can concentrate the resources and, hopefully, do a better

We are also freed from trying to produce a "one size fits all" source
file that can be turned into help OR paper docs. This causes you to
make endless compromises all down the line. In the 1960's, there was
a European car company who produced a car that could also travel on
water: The body was watertight, and the engine power could be
transferred from the wheels to a propeller. Trouble was no one bought
it: For the folks who mostly needed a car, it was a rotten car. For
the folks who mostly needed a boat, it was a rotten boat.

5. END-USER CUSTOMIZATION: Site-specific information (available
databases, passwords, etc., etc.) can be easily added to Microsoft
help files via annotations. The annotation file can then be
downloaded by a company supervisor to end users. This is the
equivalent of sticking hundreds of Post-Its into a stack of paper

Trevor Grayling
Manager, ISIS End-User Documentation
MDL Information Systems, Inc.
trevor -at- mdli -dot- com

The opinions expressed may be only partially shared by my company.

Date: Sat, 17 Sep 1994 21:47:54 EDT
From: JonPrice -at- AOL -dot- COM
Subject: Why do help?

To put together answers to frequently asked questions about help, I'm
going to ask the questions, and see what you all think, then put
together summaries.
First: why bother doing help at all? What reasons do you think are
valid, and which seem spurious?

Jonathan Price
The Communication Circle
918 La Senda, NW
Albuquerque, NM 87107

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