help with help

Subject: help with help
From: Miki Magyar <MDM0857 -at- MCDATA -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 3 Feb 1999 10:04:43 -0700

Juley asked for help on starting a help project, and got lots of excellent suggestions. I'd like to add a comment.

Remember that when someone actually goes to the Help screen, they are already frustrated and annoyed, and all they want is the answer to the immediate question. So, be very sure you know what question you're answering with each screen. Make it explicit. On a recent help project that I was able to design from scratch, I started with a paper mockup of the screen layout, and did storyboards for each topic/screen using pencil. As Jared Spool suggests (UIETips, 1/21 - Paper Prototypes), this is a very effective tool for designing a help system, since it's easy to change things on paper and retest. After a few rounds of this, I started doing the actual help file. In this case, the overall organization followed the task sequence a user would follow in setting up the product, using it, and interpreting results. So I made sure to answer the typical questions that would be asked at each stage of the process - 'How the %^$& )*! do I make this thing do X?' 'What does it mean when it does that?' and so on. In the rough draft, I wrote the question at the top of the topic, so the reviewers could get an idea of what I was trying to do, and let me know if I'd done it right.

As a guide to designing the overall structure of the help system (and the paper documents, also), I've found that organizing the questions your users are asking is a very good way to start.

Hope this helps. Keep us posted on your progress!
mikim -at- ieee -dot- org

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