The future of online Help
Classical online Help looks old-fashioned today. Features that were once innovative now seem stale and unappealing; the participatory Web has surpassed them. Nevertheless, classical software products cannot do without Help. In the future, Help needs to be leaner, more mobile, and graphic. Information should also be created and structured in a neutral format.
The following central criteria have always been significant for the acceptance of any information product, but they are becoming ever more important in the electronic world of the future:
- Quick access - Access must be simple and straightfoward for Help content to be noticed at all.
- Easy orientation - Users need to find their way quickly. Handling must be comfortable. This means easy operation, familiar structure, clear navigation, and attractive presentation.
- High utility - The information found must be current and helpful.
As long as an information product enjoys a certain exclusivity, users will overlook weak points. But as alternatives become available, weaknesses in even one area can cause users to ignore the information product completely.
What’s wrong with conventional online Help?
Despite expectations, online Help in its classical form has never really gained traction. Users seek help from other sources instead of using online Help. Often they don’t even know the online Help exists . Why?
Unfamiliar source - In the beginning, users could access online Help content through the Table of Contents, Index, Search, and context-sensitive Help. Yet providers continued to deliver the usual printed manuals containing the identical information. So it’s no surprise that users reached for the familiar information source rather than learning something new.
Unclear organization - No matter how much effort the author puts into organizing the Help content, users cannot grasp the structure right away. The more comprehensive the online Help, the harder it is for users to find their way. Even context-sensitive Help, online Help’s unique selling point, is of little use, because the displayed topic often does not describe what the user is looking for.
Insufficient networking - After online Help came the Internet. Even though the presentation and access options were initially not as good as those of online Help systems, the Web offered exciting possibilities, which until then had not existed in the static, locally installed Help.
Obsolete technology - There has been little development in the area of Help platforms over the last twelve years:
- JavaHelp still supports HTML 4 only rudimentarily
- Microsoft’s HTML Help is still the official Microsoft Help platform
- Web-based Help platforms are not standardized and offer little or no support for context-sensitive Help
Adobe and Microsoft have recently developed new solutions, but neither represents a great breakthrough , .
Help Viewer 1.0 from Microsoft is the new Help platform in Visual Studio 2010, and is purported to take the place of HTML Help. The connection to the Web has improved. The contents continue to be saved locally and are, therefore, available regardless of Web access. A new feature is that the online Help can be displayed by any browser, not just in Internet Explorer as is the case with HTML Help. However, it still requires installation of the appropriate Microsoft Help Viewer. With the exception of the XHTML format for topic contents, Help Viewer (a completely proprietary solution) is unsuitable for broad-based application.
Smartphones and tablets could be the media that finally earn Help its rightful place. It’s as though these beautiful little devices that accompany us everywhere, all the time were designed to offer Help directly and in an attractive form. Authoring tools such as MadCap Flare and Adobe RoboHelp offer the option of generating Help for mobile devices.
Stay flexible at the source with DITA
New media and changing user expectations have led to the creation of Help content that is specific to a single device  . This will lead to a variety of variants if similar but not identical devices appear. The problems inherent in this approach are well known. To avoid losing the tried and true single source principle, Help authors should commit to a set of common neutral standards. Topic-based structuring is the established structuring method, and is the only sensible approach for overcoming future challenges . As a standardized XML format for topic-based structuring, DITA is the most suitable basis . Version 1.2 contains numerous enhancements to handle the upcoming challenges:
- DITA 1.2 offers Help authors attractive options for efficient and clear content management. This includes indirect addressing, definition and use of variables, and even more flexibility in reusing topics, allowing authors to add or exchange topic contents.
- A separate Help subcommittee drives DITA development for the Help authoring world.
- Users are increasingly supported by a variety of free and paid tools. Output of DITA sources in ePub format is already possible. There are also Drupal-based wikis that use DITA as the source format. More and more tools are being developed that automatically extract contents from DITA-tagged data for mobile presentation.
Show, don’t tell
It is often easier to understand a procedure when it is demonstrated rather than described at length. Today it’s easy to create attractive videos using tools like Adobe Captivate. However, presentations should be organized into short, easily digestible chunks. One to two minutes maximum is recommended.
Lean and light
Simple solutions are quicker to create, easier to understand, better to communicate, and easier to change. Users prefer to read and comment on small pieces. When software is divided into small apps, the documentation must be adapted. We should learn to convey the essentials with as few words as possible, even in Help for complex applications. Users love the simplicity of apps and will reject anything that seems too complicated.
Emotion, not depth
People are daunted by the growing amount of information today; they want you to appeal to their emotions. We need to package and deliver information in a way that attracts users. Apple has identified this trend early. Anyone buying an Apple product, such as an iPhone, gets Help that speaks to their senses.
Image 1: Help that appeals to the senses .
Image 2: Help that makes you want more .
Accompany, don’t command
Help should speak directly to people in a way that feels pleasant. Dry, impersonal technical language has become the standard for software documentation. But when people interact with each other directly, a different tone reigns. It is more important than ever to find the appropriate language for the target group.
Image 3: Finding the right tone .
Profiting from the knowledge of others
Web 2.0 has opened up possibilities for technology that dramatically change the handling of information. Instead of one-way communication and information flows, the focus is on bringing in many participants and profiting from the knowledge of others, enabling people to achieve their goals more quickly. Wikis, blogs, and forums are examples of how knowledge can be exchanged quickly and effectively worldwide without great effort.
As always, technology alone does not guarantee success, as some failed attempts show. Without a plan and maintenance, participatory platforms quickly degenerate into chaotic information dumps or are abandoned due to low participation. Success requires thoughtful adaptation of conventional organization, responsibilities, and tasks.
Image 4: Everyone can participate – MediaWiki based Help of Comet.
Image 5: Integration of social networking – Wiki Help of Confluence
Above all, stay close
The more information is available, the more important it becomes to have direct access to the right information. The best source of information is still a human being who understands what the user needs. Failing that, users will do a Google search.
Recently, mobile tagging has enabled direct access without search engines or tedious inputs and connects not just electronic content but also the non-electronic world.
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