AODC day 2 – Design of context-sensitive help

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

Here are some notes I took from the session on user-centred design of context-sensitive help, 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.

User-Centred Design of Context-Sensitive Help

With a laugh, Matthew introduced himself:

“I am the equivalent of Tony Self but with a funny accent and a better shirt.”

In this presentation, Matthew concentrated on the information design side of things, rather than the technical implementation of context-sensitive help (CSH). He gave us a definition of CSH: “Direct access to help that is focused on the user’s current needs.” In practice, he said, we tend to provide help based on where the user is in the UI.

What do we mean by “context”? The more we can tie it down, the better help we can provide. For example, we might be able to detect and respond to: The window/dialogue/tab the user is on; the control they’re trying to use; the zoom level or other settings; previous history, such as other screens visited; role; printer connectivity and so on.

Looking to provide user-centred help, let’s look at how users behave with respect to help:

  • Most people don’t consult the help ahead of time.
  • They’re usually busy with the task when they need help.
  • They’ll only use help if they think it will give them useful information. So Matthew says they’re unlikely to click a little question mark, because it is not a convincing indicator of useful information.
  • They want to be interrupted for as short a time as possible.

We also need to consider the questions a user may ask when confronted with a task or screen. For example: What is this screen for? What do I need to enter in this field? Matthew thinks it’s unlikely they want task information in a context-sensitive topic, because they’re already busy with the task.

Matthew has noticed that some software vendors are moving towards procedural rather than reference topics. (For example, see the CSH for MadCap Flare from versions 3 to 4.) Apparently this is in response to feedback from users. But Matthew thinks this may be a misdirection.

As a consequence, one mistake the Flare help makes is to pack all the reference information into the step in the task topic. So for example, there may be a single step that tells you to complete the options on a screen. This step will now be very long because it contains all the reference information about each option.

By the way, Matthew remarked that he is a great fan of MadCap help.

In the Captivate help, the help links are now labelled as “Learn more” with an information icon. Unfortunately the help topics are very long, especially for online help use.

So Matthew thinks the CSH topics should answer the questions: “What is this? What should I enter? Which should I select?” And the topics should be written specifically for CSH rather than linking only to documentation written for other purposes.

Now Matthew discussed IBM’s Task Support Clusters, designed by Michael Hughes. The idea is that most people who use their help are coming in via CSH. They press help within the application rather than coming in via search.

So IBM identified the locations in the application where help is needed, and then built a self-contained group of topics that support that particular task.

Start with a keystone concept topic (provides critical conceptual information), then provide related tasks and reference. The topics in a cluster are all interrelated by links pointing to each other, but there are no links that point outside the cluster. So the users cannot get lost by following links all over the help system.

The idea is that 80% of the time, the users will read the keystone concept topic and that will be enough. Don’t try to answer all questions in this topic, just the most likely questions users will have.

Now Matthew discussed contextual help. This is additional information that’s actually part of the application and supplements the UI. It’s more likely that people will read this, because they don’t have to open up the help.

This is inline help, available via popups or expanding/dropdown text, or just simply on the screen. This help must be well written, because there’s very little space. Recommended length is one to three short sentences for the entire page. But just one phrase or sentence for a single field.

For the help links, use the actual question the user may ask e.g. the link might say “What is a member name?” When you click it, you get a popup answering the question. Or “See some examples” might pop up some example values for a particular field.

MadCap Flare has this kind of popup help. They’re also working on the functionality that will allow us to put it into our own help systems when using Flare — currently only for DotNet applications.

Quick help or popups should link to full help system for deeper information. MadCap Flare is doing this in their new popup help.

SnagIt’s balloon help is great — it knows what you’ve just done and suggests what you might want to do next. After a while the balloons disappear, because it assumes you know how to do it now.

Also guided help may be a good way of providing procedural help. See Matthew’s presentation from last year’s AODC conference. The application guides you through your task and actually stops you from doing the wrong thing. SHO Guide is a very interesting product that allows you to do this.

Thank you for another great session, Matthew.


About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 21 May 2009, in AODC, online help, technical writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Great recap. Thx. Could you say more about MadCap Flare allowing us to put pop-up help in our own help systems? What release are they doing this on?

    When you say that they have this for DotNet applications now, do you mean that we can do pop-up help for DotNet in Flare 4?

  1. Pingback: SHO for guided help « ffeathers — a technical writer’s blog

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