AODC day 1 – Feedback and collaboration in help

This week I’m attending the 2009 Australasian Online Documentation and Content Conference (AODC) in Melbourne. Today is the first day of the conference.

Here are some notes I took from the session on enabling feedback and collaboration in online help systems, by Matthew Ellison. I hope these notes are useful to people who couldn’t be at the conference this year. The AODC organisers will also publish the session slides and supplementary material once the conference is over.

Enabling Feedback and Collaboration in Software Help

Matthew Ellison introduced some ways of making traditional help systems more wiki-like, by allowing collaboration and feedback within the online help system.

Matthew asked us to consider what most people do when they have a problem. Instead of going immediately to the help, they ask a colleague if they’ve had the same problem. Next they might try a Google search, visit the forums, look up the FAQ, knowledge base, etc. The last thing they try is probably the online help.

  • Google search, forums, etc, help with problems that are not typical use cases i.e. something that the help author has not anticipated.
  • Also the social aspect plays a part: we’re social beings and we like to talk to each other and help each other sort out problems.

Matthew listed some help technologies that show a trend from where the help is stored on the desktop (collaboration difficult) to the server (enables collaborative feedback and commenting):

  • Windows Help (.hlp) — Ahead of its time because you were able to annotate help files, but this is only for your own purpose not collaborative
  • HTML Help (.chm)
  • JavaHelp
  • Oracle Help
  • Browser-based help
  • Oracle Help for the Web
  • Server-based help
  • Eclipse Help
  • Adobe Air help — Used to provide the help for RoboHelp, for example.

Web-based help allows you to link from other locations directly to the official help. For example, you could link from user forums to the help. Or the support staff can link to the help. Matthew said that he has not seen links in the other direction e.g. from the official help to the forums.

(A quick note from me: We do link from the Atlassian documentation to the forums, blogs etc.)

Matthew is suggesting that we may be able to have a help system that is much more integrated e.g. instead of having the forums and the help in separate places, we could merge them. There is still a place for the official help, that provides trustworthy guidance and instructions. And if there are problems, at least the reader can take it up with the company concerned.

(Matthew said at this point that, as far as he knows, context-sensitive help is not available in a wiki-based solution. This is another thing we have implemented at Atlassian. See this blog post and this one.)

Now Matthew asked why we should enable feedback and collaboration in help:

  • Users like to contribute and share information.
  • We can use their comments to improve the help.
  • Shared comments improve the users’ experience of help.

He gave a number of examples of simple feedback mechanisms in existing help systems, where the online system provides a way users can rate their experience of help. Typically, the help system asks if the information was useful, and offers you a text box to provide feedback. Examples are QuickBooks Help, eBay Help, Yahoo Help.

Some more sophisticated examples:

  • Adobe Help Viewer, used for FrameMaker, Captivate, RoboHelp. Built on Adobe Air technology. Allows you to add comments, via an optional pane at the bottom of the viewer. You have to sign in with an Adobe ID in order to provide the feedback. You can also choose to keep the comment private i.e. not visible to other users. It also sends a confirmation email when you add a comment, and awards you some Adobe Community Help points. This gives you a warm feeling, said Matthew with his trademark smile 🙂
  • Help for Adobe Captivate — You can see the comments from other users in the comments window. So users can even start a dialogue with each other via the comments.
  • Help for Flare, by MadCap Software, allows the same level of collaboration. The help is delivered in DotNet help format, embedded in the product. At the top of every topic is a bar allowing you to rate the topic. You can rate the topic, see the current rating and provide feedback. You can also see all recent comments for all topics. Matthew comments that the options are not very visible. The help author at MadCap says that it’s not much used, probably because it’s not very visible.

As a help author, you can do this kind of thing in your own help system:

  • You can simply add a mailto link. Or you can add an HTML form, allowing people to send comments. Use server-side scripting and a database connection.
  • DocCommentXchange (DCX) from Sybase is a proprietary comment-enabled web-based documentation. Users can submit comments. Based on GWT (Google Web Toolkit) and a SQL Anywhere database server. (They presented a case study about it at WritersUA 2009. This required a fair amount of technical knowledge, so is not the solution for most people.)
  • You can use Adobe Air Help. You need to create your help in RoboHelp and generate the output as Adobe Air Help. You can allow users to comment on topics and view previous comments. However, they can only share comments with other people on the same LAN, not across the internet.
  • MadCap Flare provide a feedback server, or you can use their hosted service. Users can provide topic rating and feedback to the author. You can share feedback via the web with all other users of the application. Can do it with any help format (DotNet Help, HTML Help, WebHelp, WebHelp AIR, WebHelp Plus). You configure the options when you generate your help system. It will also send an email to the author when a comment arrives, asking the author to approve the comment and thus make it visible to all users.

But Matthew noted that, to date, the feedback volume is low in the systems he has investigated. People prefer to give their feedback via forums, rather than in the help system.

Also, remember that you need to set up mechanisms to collect and analyse the data, act upon it, and respond to contributors.

Thank you Matthew for a detailed and interesting talk.


About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 20 May 2009, in AODC, online help, technical writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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