ROI of online help?

Subject: ROI of online help?
From: "Geoff Hart (by way of \"Eric J. Ray\" <ejray -at- raycomm -dot- com>)" <ght -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
Date: Thu, 5 Nov 1998 10:57:18 -0700

Karl Muchow is <<...trying to justify the cost of replacing paper
manuals with online versions. Is there any good research on the
Return On Investment (ROI) or Cost-Benefit Analyses of WinHelp or
similar online systems?>>

I can't cite a study, but I can ask the obvious question: for whom
are you defining the ROI... your budget or your audience? If you're
talking about your company's budget, the savings are obvious because
it should take (very, very roughly) the same amount of staff time to
produce the online help as it took to produce the print manuals,
with essentially no production cost (i.e., the CD is already paid for
by the software that goes on it). Assumptions (among many I won't
bother writing down): Your techwhirlers are up to speed on help
development, and you're creating the next generation of online help
from scratch. If you're simply repurposing information that already
exists in print, then you don't have to redo the initial research
with your SMEs and the subsequent technical reviews, so the
process should be much faster. You'll still need a usability review
of the online materials, and that brings us to the second ROI: for
your audience.

Personally (and this is purely anecdotal), I find that most online
help wastes my time and is actually dramatically less efficient than
its printed equivalent. N.B.: That's an artefact of the corporate
culture that led to developing the help system, not an inherent
limitation to online help; for example, I've heard the possibly
apocryphal story that the online help for Word had as its main design
criterion that it had to fit on a single floppy disk. It shows.
I've also (very rarely) seen well-done context-sensitive help that
was prepared by someone who understood my needs and who took the time
to meet those needs. Can you define what user-oriented problems
you're trying to solve by putting the help online? If so, then you
can do a simple usability test to determine whether you can solve
those problems. If not, you're dumping your production costs onto
your users and ensuring a thriving market in "...for Dummies" books.
--Geoff Hart @8^{)}
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

"By God, for a moment there it all made sense!"--Gahan Wilson

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