Note: This post is also a podcast that you can listen to on Tech Writer Voices.
Help 2.0 is what might be called Web 2.0 applied to help documentation. We are becoming used to seeing websites equipped with Web 2.0 features, and it's only a matter of time before the technical writing community catches up and begins integrating the same features.
Web 2.0 may not have an exact definition everyone agrees with, but few will dispute that in part, it means building features into your site or application that allow users to become contributors to the content. The degree to which users can contribute defines the level on the Web 2.0 scale. For the most extreme applications, the entire content is driven by users. In other instances, users may contribute only a little, but this contribution still becomes part of the site or application's appeal.
The following websites might all be classified as Web 2.0 sites:
Digg. All of this site's content comes from users who contribute links and short comments on interesting articles they discover on the web. Users then digg or bury the stories that appear on the home page. Super popular stories can be dugg thousands of times. The posts are then sorted by popularity, based on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis.
Wikipedia. This well-known online encyclopedia attempts to cover all of human knowledge. There is no staff of paid writers. It is an enormous wiki that anyone can contribute to. Additionally, anyone can edit the content. Further, the administrators who maintain the content on the myriad servers are also volunteer. What is surprising about Wikipedia is that it actually works -- there are millions of articles in more than a dozen languages.
Flickr. This popular photo sharing website allows you to upload your photos and share them with others. You tag your photos with keywords, and others can search for the photos by keyword. In fact, the banner on this website is from a panorama shot from Flickr. You can subscribe to user feeds and group feeds, and also comment on others' photos. Again, all of the content for this site is driven by users. They produce the content for the site, and others build on that content.
Zooomr. While I mention Flickr, I should also note that Zooomr takes the idea of Flickr to a new level -- it's just not as popular yet. But Zooomr incorporates geotagging that allows you to see interesting geographic details related to the photos you're looking at. I think it is a mashup with Google maps.
Amazon. Obviously you've heard of Amazon, but they also have some popular Web 2.0 features in their website. Users can write reviews of books and also rate them. When you make a selection, the site recommends similar selections that other users like you made.
Allrecipes. One of the best recipe sites on the web, allrecipes.com allows users to submit their own recipes to the site. Others can write reviews of the recipe and rate them. When you make searches, you can limit the results to recipes that only met a certain high rating, or that do not contain certain ingredients. You can view the top 20 rated recipes
WordPress. The WordPress Codex, the site that contains all of the documentation for the WordPress blogging engine, is a spectacle of user contributed help content. It contains hundreds of instructional articles and information that users contribute and edit regularly. The site also has an extensive help forum that users regularly search and respond to.
Sparkpeople. One of the most interesting diet and nutrition sites, Sparkpeople integrates blogs and community teams on their site, allowing users to form groups with similar goals to maintain enthusiasm. The communities can be based on similarity of background, location, or other criteria. The site also offers goal tracking capability, and calorie counting ability. If a food you want to enter is not available, you can enter the details. The food is then entered into the system and available to others.
Payscale. You may not have heard of Payscale, but it is an amazing salary comparison tool. Most salary comparison tools have general information about your job salary based on statistics from government organizations, or from other generic databases. But this tool has you enter in your details very specifically, including geographic area, number of years in profession, size of company, etc. As you enter your own information, it becomes the basis upon which other salaries are compared. Your average salary is then calculated based on very specific comparisons to others who entered criteria similar to you.
Youtube. This site allows you to share videos. Others can view the videos you upload, and can rate and comment on them. Further, with a little piece of code they provide, you can embed the youtube video and player directly onto your blog or website.
Google Maps. You may have thought Google Maps was only a mapping tool for finding directions and figuring out where places are located. But it has become much more than that. Through an open API kit, you can combine Google Maps with other applications. So if you have a real estate database, for example, you can combine it with Google Maps and get something like Zillow.
New York Times Most Popular Articles. Although it may seem like just a newspaper, actually the New York Times has begun implementing interesting new Web 2.0 features. This Most Popular page tells you the most popular articles that have been e-mailed, blogged, and searched. The newspaper is also incorporating blogs that allow commenting.
Pandora. Just discovered this site, because it won website of the year from some organization. It's quite a cool site -- you can listen to music for free, and it appears legal. But it's also web 2.0 because when you create an account, you can develop a profile of music you like to listen to. You can then listen to other users' music profiles. Other users' preferences for music become the driving force behind the content that drives you.
Google. You wouldn't think that Google would be classified as a Web 2.0 site, and I'm probably the only one who is saying it is, but the genius of Google is that its search algorithm is user-driven. The search rankings google uses to decide whether a search return is relevant is largely driven by the number of links that users create pointing to that site. A bad example is that if you search for "miserable failure," you get George Bush's biography. That's because dozens of users decided to make hyperlinks with the words "miserable failure" pointing to Bush's bio page. However, this principle works ingeniously for most of the content. The more people link to a site, the higher the rating of that site in Google's algorithm. Hence their search results are largely user-driven.
One of the basic requirements of Web 2.0 is user interactivity. Web 1.0 was all about static websites and treating the user as a reader only. Web 2.0 allows the reader to interact with the content, and more specifically, to add to the content. The result is a collective human intelligence, as O'Reilly calls it, that outperforms anything a single individual can do.
Basic features might include the following:
So how can we apply the principles of Web 2.0 to our help documentation? This is the question we must answer to move help content into the next generation of the internet.
In my dream vision of the ultimate help application, it looks like this:
I wish I knew PHP, because then I could probably code such an application out of WordPress itself. The shortcomings of such a system are probably manifold. Traditional help authoring tools offer so many advanced features that blog/wiki type applications don't have. But eventually the two will marry each other, and help will move forward.
What are your thoughts on help 2.0?
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I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here. You can also contact me with questions.