Constructing a One-Stop "Answer Station" Website for Software Users

By Nicoletta A. Bleiel and Beth A. Williams


The web allows us to easily provide updated documentation to our users, but why stop there? There is more to making users successful quickly than just providing documentation. By creating a complete “Answer Station” that is accessible from the application or product, we can not only direct users to that updated documentation, but we can also provide information about technical support, consulting, training, sales, etc.

This article discusses writing a proposal for an Answer Station, determining content, working with other departments to gather information, designing the site, making that design work with an existing corporate website, dealing with tool issues, and finally, going live.

The article is presented through the following sections:

What is an Answer Station and why do you need one?

It is common to point software users directly to a corporate home page from the Help menu of software products. However, while this puts a lot of useful information at their fingertips, it generally does not take them directly to information that will get them up and running with your software. In fact, you are usually referring them to the same marketing information that led them to purchase the product in the first place.

An Answer Station is a website that provides software users with a centralized location to access updated documentation and information about new features, as well as links to technical support, consulting, training, and sales. In the case of a product that is part of a suite, an Answer Station can also help cross-promote other products that customers may find useful.

Making a business case for an Answer Station

Before we put together our Answer Station, we had to create a business case and present it to management for approval. We first worked out the “sphere of influence” the Answer Station would cover for our customers. The inside of the sphere listed the core items the Documentation team provided, like online help and manuals. Outside of those core items were things the Documentation team would like to provide, but had no easy way to distribute to customers, such as updated help, white papers, and errata. Next were categories that customers would find useful if they needed more serious user assistance, like technical support, training, and consulting. The outer circle of the sphere listed the tangential benefits of the site, such as the promotion of the entire software suite, consulting, training, and the online sale of printed and CD-ROM documentation.

Naming your site

When beginning work on your site, it is important to also begin the naming process because it may take the entire project cycle to decide on a specific name. This is due to the time it takes to research if your suggested names are already copyrighted works.

To arrive at a final name, we brainstormed for possible names and conducted web research to see what else was already being used. After narrowing the list down to about 10 names, we did an internal survey of 50 people to modify the list even further. Finally, we ran our choices through our legal department. “Answer Station” was chosen from a list that included working names such as “Help Center,” “Assistance Central,” and “Assistance Center.”

The following are examples of websites that are similar to Rockwell Software’s Answer Stations.

Determining content and the best way to get it

Determining content for the Answer Station started with our business case, which we built on with a combination of brainstorming and detective work. Because we work for a corporation with a large amount of web content, detective work included searching the corporate website for information as well as working with existing and developing contacts in technical support, consulting, training, and sales. Not only can these people provide leads on where to find information, they also provide insight into the customer experience from a number of different angles.

When working with a large existing website, much of the information you want to link to likely already exists. In this case, the “Answer Station” acts as a portal to existing websites. Other information will actually have to be created by the Documentation Team.

We also categorized the information by source: some information was the responsibility of the Documentation Team, while some of it fell under the auspices of an outside department (for example, support or training). Additionally, we had some information that was not available for all products in the suite.

Information “Buckets”

After the potential content was gathered, we wanted to work out a way to group the information in logical “buckets.” We started out by creating spreadsheets that grouped the information by categories of our choosing. We then took the information out in the field and conducted a “card sort” exercise with several customers to see how they grouped and categorized the information. Specifically, we listed each information category (White Papers, FAQs, etc.) on index cards. We then asked the users to sort the cards as they saw fit, and to give names to the each of their sorted “buckets.”

We combined these methods to work out the final content of the Answer Station.

Designing the site and dealing with constraints

We originally conceived the Answer Station as a standalone site that linked to other existing company sites. With that in mind, we worked out several paper prototype designs, and made the best of those into a quick test website for usability testing.

However, we found that we would have to build our site within the existing corporate site. This meant that we could keep our navigation, but would have to modify our design so that it worked within the existing site. The top, left, and right frames as well as the breadcrumbs were controlled by the webmaster and therefore were not available for our use.

In addition to design constraints, working within an existing website meant that we would have to carefully coordinate functionality and publishing with the webmaster. We also had to make sure that our web creation tool would work with the existing site. The fact that the existing site was created in another tool created some problems that had to be overcome. For example, we initially had issues keeping the frames in line, and some of the files would not download when clicked.

Another constraint was the presence of the top, left, and right frames, which contained existing links and information that we had to make sure we did not duplicate. The webmaster added the Answer Station to the navigation in one of the frames, which helped raise its profile throughout the larger site.

Publicizing your site

There are several ways to direct users to your Answer Station which include:

  • Providing a link from your product help menu. For example, Help > RSBizWare Assistance on the Web.
  • Creating a help topic detailing the Answer Station and adding it to your online help. Index that topic several ways, such as Answer Station and Help on the Web.
  • Creating a link to the site via the Start menu.

We're Live, now what?

After your Answer Station is live, it is important to update it often so that frequent visitors will find new and useful information. Links to new information such as case studies and support updates are usually available. Keep an eye out for other information that would be useful for customers, and keep a documentation content “wish list” that you can go back to when you have the time and resources to generate and post it.

Track Hits

If your site has tracking software enabled, make sure to request monthly “hit reports” from your webmaster. If you find that your site has a low hit rate, find new ways to publicize it within your product. If certain pages get higher hit rates than others, determine if more information needs to be added to those pages, or if this need indicates additional solutions on the software side.

Broken Links

Because a site of this nature will often have links to many different sites controlled by many different people, it is important to forge a relationship with those content providers so that they will inform you when they make changes to pages that may affect your site. But even with the best intentions, broken links will happen. Keep an eye out for emails that announce updates to sites you are linked to, and every month or so, click through your Answer Station to confirm that links are still working. There are also software programs that can scan your site and check for broken links.

Status report

Our initial Answer Station rollout yielded four different websites that were created at two Rockwell Software campuses. Another Answer Station was rolled out six months later, and two more are in the works. We hope to have an Answer Station for every product (or suite) within the next two years.

Links to Rockwell Answer Stations on the web






    Link to the article contents

Nicoletta (Nicky) Bleiel is an Information Development Lead with Rockwell Software, a company that develops software for industrial automation. Nicky has over 10 years experience in technical communication, and presented at last year’s STC conference in the “Bleeding Edge” stem. She is the Vice President of the Pittsburgh Chapter of STC.

Beth Williams is a Senior Information Designer with Management Reports International, an Intuit company specializing in real estate software development. Beth has over 10 years experience in the technical communication field, and has presented at numerous STC conferences at the local, regional, and international level. She also has experience as an adjunct faculty member at Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) teaching editing, and is presently a Past President of the Northeast Ohio STC chapter.