Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Help Landscape: A Mile Wide and 30 Seconds Deep

Developing usable Help ...

"Two questions any writer must deal with are: “What do I write about?” and “How much do I say about it?” Essentially, these questions deal with the scope and the depth of a document. Technical communicators have a tendency to want to document a topic as completely as possible, and we carry this instinct with us when we architect and write Help files. In this column, I challenge that prevalent instinct and offer an alternative way of thinking about the scope and depth requirements of Help systems. The benefits of this approach are, I hope, better Help for users and, for our clients and employers, a more efficient use of technical communicators’ time. First, I’ll discuss three principles that underpin my perspective, then I’ll give some practical advice about writing Help that people will actually use.

Three Underlying Principles for Help

My years as a technical instructor—often dealing with new products or technologies—have taught me that I did not need to be a lot smarter than my students. I’ve survived, more times than not, by merely staying a day ahead in the reading or a page ahead in the lesson plan. Ironically, as I got smarter about a topic, I sometimes found that the effectiveness of my teaching decreased, because I was missing the point that the students could grasp only so much in a given day. So, as I got smarter, my output exceeded my students’ input capacity. John Carroll, in his book The Nurnberg Funnel, talks about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in training: The more complete training is, the less usable it will be; the more usable it is, the less complete it can be. I think this uncertainty principle aligns closely with my realization that instructional delivery systems must match up with a student’s intake bandwidth.

A more recent principle I find insightful is Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson’s concept of the long tail. His theory states that, although a significant number of sales occur around hits and best sellers, the majority of the market is distributed over smaller niches. Online stores can sell to such niche markets, because they do not have to maintain a physical inventory. Another principle relating to the long tail says that niche buyers derive great satisfaction from having their specific needs met—as this reaction illustrates, “Oh boy! A left-handed mustache mug with the Grateful Dead bear on it!” (Perhaps I reveal too much about myself with that example.)

A third principle that influences my approach to architecting Help systems derives from an observation I made over the course of watching hundreds of users during usability tests and in training rooms: Users go to Help only when they’re stuck and stay there only until they feel unstuck. In other words, users will not spend a lot of time reading Help. Instead, they return to action mode as soon as they know enough to take the next action. This is true for two reasons:

o Reading text online is physically demanding.
o Users would rather be working in an application than reading about it."    (Continued via UXmatters)    [Usability Resources]

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