This article gives tips for online help that goes beyond the critical writing skills. It considers issues such as user contribution, interaction, responsive design and software integration.
There are lots of well written blogs and articles giving good online help tips. It’s very well worked ground. My favourites in no particular order are:
- ‘The Design of Effective Online Help in Web Applications’. This is a study in the Journal of Knowledge Management Practice.
- ‘Tips for writing great technical documents and help files’, by Ellis Pratt.
- ‘Seven golden rules of online help design’, by the excellent Matthew Ellison.
I agree wholeheartedly with all the sound advice in these articles. Advice about readability, using the active voice, writing topics to answer questions is all good advice. They are the essential building blocks of good online help.
However, important as these building blocks remain, I’d like to add my six tips that reflect recent trends. These are:
The best online help has users actively joining in with content. Content is now a two-way conversation.
Encouraging user participation can lead to developing online help using a wiki.
My favourite software for this is Atlassian’s Confluence. This is essentially a collaboration tool rather than online help development software. Its scope for involving users in distributing knowledge is huge and our customers love it.
Sidenotes are a great step forward in Microsoft’s new documentation service. With this facility you can highlight a passage of documentation and leave an inline comment.
I’m a huge fan of showing people how to carry out a task and then letting them try for themselves. The line between online help and e-Learning has become blurred. Video as part of the help works ever so well. It’s the way lots of people prefer to learn.
3. Responsive design
2015 was the year Google revealed that more than half of all searches were made from mobile devices rather than desktops. When a lot of online help will be viewed from mobiles or tablets, it really must be made responsive.
Utilities such as MadCap Flare and Adobe’s RoboHelp now make this relatively easy.
It’s my perception that indexing of online help is less popular nowadays than it was 10 years ago. Everyone has become familiar with Google-style searching and likes it.
Any online help system must have a top-class search facility. It’s the main way users find the topic they want.
5. Downloadable .PDFs
Microsoft’s recent article ‘Introducing docs.microsoft.com’ makes the point:
“While many customers like the ability to have multi-part tutorials, we also heard from customers who want the ability to combine multi-step tutorials into a single, offline printer-friendly PDF. We don’t have this yet, but it will be coming soon to the preview.”
This matches our own feedback from user groups at our client sites. The .PDF user guide download facility is very popular. Users don’t view online help and a user guide as an either/or. They want both. With single-source output available in most technical authoring utilities, both online help and user guides should come as a package.
I still maintain that online help should be integrated in the software it is explaining, ideally as context sensitive help.
Frequently integration now takes place with Support Software, rather than the application itself. This means users have to open a new browser tab and logon to the Support System. From here they then start searching for the topic they need. It’s much better to access the online help direct from the software they are using. Don’t create barriers to using the help. Make it easy.
Finally, please let me emphasise, I don’t dispute all the good advice about readability, the active voice and task-based writing. It’s classic textbook stuff. But technical authors wanting to take their work further should consider my six tips.