WinHelp as Training

Subject: WinHelp as Training
From: Tim Altom <taltom -at- IQUEST -dot- NET>
Date: Sat, 28 Feb 1998 15:27:57 -0500

Got my STC Journal the other day and read the article "Where is the
Instruction in Online Help Systems?" The author maintains that adding
instructional design to online help files can help the user.

It started me thinking about the argument I've had and heard with other
help designers over the years...should help or paper manuals be seen as
teaching aids, or as task assistance? Can they be both?

I'll say at the top that I don't think they can be both, not ideally. You
can, of course, straddle the worlds, but it reduces the effectiveness of
both sides. The article's author, Jean Pratt, makes some good arguments,
but I don't know that she's convinced me that online help should be
considered in any way to be a training aid. In my view, users don't access
help to learn; they access help to get over a momentary hump. I can see
putting a tutorial in the help file, but isolated so that it isn't diluted.

For example, Jean suggests that help file development start with five
points on a checklist, of which the first two are 1) starting with a
foundation of imperative, task-focused procedures rather than mere
descriptions of the components of the software (Amen, Jean), but that 2)
the file should add feedback to confirm the user's actions. Here I think I
part company with her. The first is sound task-based help; the second
verges on instruction. I don't think that most users want or need a
direction-action-feedback loop to get through a task. It would be nice if
task assistance and learning could be interleaved, giving you two birds for
one pass through the bush, but I don't think they can be easily reconciled.
Learning involves redundancy. Task assistance requires speed. Further,
business deadlines usually negate any effort to create good, clear,
effective instruction, which takes at least as long to create as task
assistance, and perhaps longer.

Still, I'm open to other arguments. Anybody else read the article or had
this discussion? Should paper/online help be a combination of task
assistance and instruction, or should these two things we kept from an
incestuous relationship?

Tim Altom
Vice President, Simply Written, Inc.
317.899.5882 (voice) 317.899.5987 (fax)
Creators of the Clustar Method (TM)
An out-of-the-box methodology for fast task-based documentation
that's easy to port to paper, WinHelp, Acrobat, SGML, and other media.

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