But really when it comes down to it, there are only so many options — printed manuals, short guides, interactive flash guides, videos, online help, live training, reference cards, context-sensitive help, workbooks and exercises, or, usually the favorite, someone to stand by their computer and answer questions whenever they need help.
(I'm surprised how many people actually tell me that last option, as if in any kind of world that would be feasible.)
The most common responses go somewhat like this:
While it seems like such a simple task — ask the users what they want, and then deliver it — in reality it's a difficult call. Imagine that you're planning to feed a large hall of people. In deciding what to feed them, you ask them. But the responses are all over the place: some are vegetarians, some love steak, some prefer barbeque, others want salad, others want pork, others don't eat pork, others like pizza, others want crab, others are allergic to seafood, and so on. Same goes with help.
However, despite the variety of learning preferences, I think there are several key principles that hold true for almost all of us:
Given this variety of ups and downs, usability principles and learning preferences, what set of help deliverables will most likely appeal to the widest audience? In most situations, one can't create them all and do a good job. Maybe you're magically able to single source everything into 7 different deliverables at once and satisfy everyone, but in my experience, that doesn't really work.
My favorite response to the question — "How do you prefer to learn new software applications?" — was when a user pointed me to the Interactive Microsoft Office Guides. These guides were created my Microsoft to help people figure out where all the supposedly intuitive stuff is on the ribbon (I can just see the Microsoft ribbon developers saying, 3 years ago, "Oh users will get it, totally …."
You might want to take a look at these guides. They're Flash-based, interactive, and really engaging, not to mention helpful. They show a mock interface of the application. When you make a selection, it gives instruction on how to do the exact same task in Word 2007.
When it comes down to it, here's what I think most users truly want:
Notice that I omitted the M word. There isn't a 200 page print manual in the list. I have mixed feelings about this omission. At the last STC Summit, I attended a panel that discussed whether the printed manual was dead.
Unfortunately there wasn't a definitive answer. When you omit the printed manual, 67% of the people complain, according to the panel. But apparently if you put the manual in PDF format, in place of a printed manual, the percentage of people who use it is exactly the same. So people don't use the printed manual, but they complain if you don't include it.
Creating a long manual is no easy task. To be usable, it needs a meaty index at the back that is thorough, full of synonym references and other user-intuitive phrasings. Additionally, you need cross references throughout. And then there's a lot of layout and formatting. If you have images that you're including, the resolutions differ from online and print, so often you need two sets. In many cases (if you're using a good help authoring tool) you can mostly single source your online help to printed material in one go, but setting up the conditional tags, print styles, variables, cross references, and other considerations in your tool, as well as fixing the inevitable formatting errors, takes a long time.
Rather than labor away at this printed beast, I think I will, for once, skip it and focus on improving other deliverables my users more frequently request.
What help deliverables are you creating for your users and why?
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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.