Making your online help successful

technical authoring

For many years I’ve been aware of the findings of the excellent paper ‘How People Read on the Web; The Eyetracking Evidence’ by Kara Pernice, Kathryn Whitenton and Jakob Nielsen. The study looked at how people read a web page and based on this, the techniques you can apply when designing and writing web page content.

Most of the software online help I’ve developed in the last 10 years are accessed through a browser. Consequently I believe that many of the techniques described by Pernice, Whitenton and Nielsen are hugely relevant to technical authors working on online help development. Yet many of the online help systems I see in the software industry show a real neglect of some basic principles.

Generally users accessing a topic in an online help system are looking for something specific. They have a problem using the software and need assistance. Their information foraging is directed.

‘How People Read the Web’ tells us that 79% of users scan a web page; they don’t read it word-by-word. Additionally, most readers spend less than 10 seconds on each page. If the technical author doesn’t convince them within 10 seconds that the content is relevant, the user moves on. So how do you design online help and write content which reaches your audience?

Here are the best tips:

  • Make sure you have a consistent and predictable page design. Use master pages and cascading style sheets to achieve this. Consistent page design speeds the scanning process.
  • Write good titles to your pages so that readers instantly know what the topic explains.
  • Front load your content. The first two lines of your topic need to summarise perfectly what the content covers.
  • Use meaningful sub-headings to provide additional ‘scanning fodder’ for your readers.
  • Highlight keywords to attract attention. Valid highlighting techniques can be through a hyperlink or by using bold.
  • Write using Plain English. Short words, short sentences and short paragraphs are best. Carry out Flesch Reading Ease scores on your text and make sure you score highly.
  • Use bulleted and numbered lists. Bulleted lists are used where the order isn’t important; numbered lists when you write a sequence of actions that must be carried out in a set order.
  • Tables are brilliant. They help the scanning process.

But the best tip of all. Read ‘How People Read on the Web; The Eyetracking Evidence’ and apply this to your online help development. It produces great results. See some of the samples of online help on our website.

Making your online help successful

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