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Help 2.0: The Convergence of Help with Web 2.0

by Tom Johnson on Jan 2, 2007
categories: technical-writing

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.

Defining Web 2.0

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.

Top Web 2.0 Websites

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, 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.

Common Web 2.0 Features

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:

  • Ability to comment on the content
  • Ability to rate the content
  • Ability to sort by different ratings (highest ratings, most rated, most searched, etc.)
  • Ability to edit the content
  • Ability to add to the content (text, photos, video, voice)
  • Ability to integrate the content with other applications
  • Automatically generated profiles that others can learn from, listen to, or read

Help 2.0

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:

  • Users can rate help topics according to their usefulness. The highest rated topics are automatically aggregated into one section. The lowest rated topics are aggregated in another section and flagged as "needing help."
  • Users can add comments to the help topics to identify problem areas or to suggest tips or other ways of going about a task. Users can comment on other user's comments -- in other words, the comments aren't just emails sent to the help team. They are publicly available comments that other users can respond to.
  • When a user wants to contribute a help topic, the submission form is coded with behind-the-scenes DITA tags. The content users enter can be transformed into usable documentation without a technical writer needing to reformat it.
  • The content is semantically rich and accessible because the DITA tags enable semantic web searches (e.g., searches for only calendar events, or searches only for help content).
  • Users can construct their own help manuals. They open up a page that shows the table of contents in the left column, and a blank column on the right. They can then drag over the topics they want to print. These topics are compiled automatically and printed.
  • When user searches for topics, the search engine gets smarter depending on the user's selection of the results. Search returns that are selected more often move up in the the list of returns.
  • The help system incorporates trackbacks, so that when people write posts about the application on their own sites, their comments are shown in the help system in a unique location.
  • The product has an RSS feed that integrates into the help file of the application. The RSS feed is the blog of the development team, so users can be aware of what's in the works, what the team is having issues with, what enhancements are available, tips, etc. Help is no longer a static entity hard-coded and shipped with the application. It is a continuously living file that changes dynamically depending on new information.
  • The help application is open-source, and you can add plugins to it to extend its functionality. You don't have to wait until the company issues a next release. Instead, you can incorporate new plugins that extend the application's functionality on the fly. If you don't like something, you can enter the code and change it. You can also re-release your code and make the changes available to others. In this way, developers build on the development of other builders.
  • A user-live view is available in the help file. Administrators can watch the mouse-movements of users in real-time as they manipulate the help file, making selections and clicking aimlessly. Statistics are compiled that show graphs of the popularity of different topics. You can even incorporate Google Analytics to view the hotspots of user clicks.
  • Youtube videos are integrated into the application walking the user through different procedures. The youtube videos can be created by anyone -- the help file just incorporates videos continuously based on keywords that pull in content from a youtube feed. The videos are narrated by both experienced and amateur voices.
  • Users desiring to participate in user-research can turn on their web cams (you know, the little Logitech ones that you use with applications like Yahoo Messenger) and participate in user-research. This feature would be integrated with the live view plugin that allows administrators to view user activity in real-time.
  • The content can be exported to mobile devices and called upon on video iPods when the user needs to figure out instructions on site.

Your Thoughts?

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?

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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