In this podcast from the Atlanta chapter, Rob Houser talks about Vista help, noting that topics in the help aren't just steps. They often have meaty conceptual explanations before the steps. This is a trend away from the heavily task-based help that has been standard in years past. For an example, look at this sample sample help topic from SharePoint 2007's help (excerpt on right). Look at all that conceptual stuff before you even get to the numbered steps.
Rob also says Microsoft's help now uses more screenshots, but the screenshots are more instructional. They often illustrate concepts and are more purposeful, rather than just showing the interface.
I like these two points. Some users need the basic, task-only topics. But power users need more information. And we often skimp on the conceptual, business-oriented information that users want because it's harder to write.
Why is it so hard to write? Oftentimes companies roll out software without knowing exactly how it will be used. So while the business, real-world information is essential, Rob says it often isn't discovered until the product has been used for 6 months or more.
The latest article in June's Intercom ("Kicking and Screaming: Modernizing Today's Help Systems") talks about providing user forums and other Web 2.0 mediums to supplement traditional help. This allows users to fill in the gaps for this business-process, real-world use information.
Lately I have been thinking that technical writing is more rewarding if you write the harder, more conceptual-based help. Describing simple tasks gets pretty dull. Sometimes I like the challenge of figuring out the impossible (or at least the hard to do stuff). Listening to Rob's talk reinforced to me the importance of conceptual information.
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