Design Checklists for Online Help
Online help systems have evolved over the past 20 years to meet the needs of our users. Designers must consider the content, format, presentation, navigation, and access methods of online help systems. A series of design checklists based on the past 20 years of research are presented in this paper, which summarizes a journal article currently being considered for publication. The latest trend in online help system design is embedded user assistance, which includes integrating information into the interface and including an embedded help pane within that interface to display a context-sensitive online help system.
The design and implementation of online help systems continues to evolve along with the systems and technologies that they support. With the advent of the Internet and Web, users have become more accustomed to using online information and have even come to expect certain things from those online information systems.
Although most researchers define online help systems as "brief, task-oriented modules of information" (Harris and Hoosier, 1991, p. 201) that support the user in accomplishing their tasks, some researchers use a broader definition that includes "other forms of online documentation, such as quick tours, online manuals, tutorials, and other collections of information that help people use and understand products" (Gelertner, 1998, p. 188). Regardless of the breadth of the information, several key design features remain constant in those online help systems.
Many human-computer interaction specialists have pointed out that the distinction between the online help systems and the user interfaces they support is not obvious to the user (Sellen and Nicol, 1990). So, it is only natural that the design of online help systems has led to designing embedded user assistance.
Current definitions of embedded user assistance include interface text, tooltips, wizards, coaches, and embeddded help panes (Ames, 2001; Grayling, 2002). Information is moving out of the separate online help systems into the interfaces.
This paper presents the design attributes of online help systems in a series of design checklists and then discusses the latest research in interface and user assistance design.
Design Attributes of Online Help Systems
Spool and Scanlon (1996) reported that users use online help for one of two reasons: they are confused about the interface or they need to find a specific product function. They also reported that users avoid online help because of the time spent in using it, in that there is not a return on that investment of time. To that end, designers must consider the following design attributes in creating usable, readable online help systems:
When designing online help systems, consider these design attributes for content:
Format & Presentation Considerations
When designing online help systems, consider these design attributes for formatting and presenting the information:
When designing online help systems, consider these design attributes for navigating the information:
When designing online help systems, consider these design attributes for accessing the online help system:
Interface Text and Embedded User Assistance
After reporting users dissatisfaction with online help systems (Grayling, 1998), Grayling (2002) ran a new usability study and concluded that instead of revising the existing online help system models, writers must improve the user interface and then work to provide an extremely context-sensitive, embedded user assistance system.
As Zubak (2003) reports, user interfaces are becoming more "inductive" by being redesigned to be more task-based and incorporate more information into the interface itself. As Ames (2001) reports, "If you look at some of the most popular and easy-to-use (validated by usability testing) applications on our desktops today, like Intuit Quicken and Microsoft® Money, you’ll notice that their UIs meld traditional UI widgets with information," which gives users “the information they need to perform a task correctly the first time is available [online] -- at the right time" (p. 111).
As part of this new user interface design, an embedded help pane is provided to display dynamic, context-sensitive, task-based information (Grayling, 2002; Ames, 2001; Ray & Ray, 2001), implemented as described in the design checklists presented in this paper. By embedding the help pane within the user interface, the information is tied much more closely with that interface.
Over the past 20 years, technical communicators have learned a great deal about how to design an effective online help system. Based on this research and experience, they are working alongside developers and human-computer interaction specialists to integrate as much information into the interface as possible. Even the online help is being integrated into an embedded help pane in user interfaces to help ensure that the user stays on task within the product. The content, format, presentation, navigation, and access of the online help systems will continue to evolve as user interfaces are redesigned to contain more of the information that users need in the first place.
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Michelle Corbin is a senior technical editor and information architect at IBM. She has 15 years experience as a technical writer and technical editor, focusing much of her energies on the design and implementation of online information systems. She has a BA in English and an MS in Technical Communication, both from North Carolina State University. She's a Senior Member of STC and a past president of the Carolina Chapter of STC.
Written by Michelle Corbin, originally titled "From Online Help to User Assistance" in the STC 2003 Conference Proceedings, and used with permission from the Society for Technical Communication, Arlington, VA, U.S.A.