Usability studies and online help?

Subject: Usability studies and online help?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 14 Jun 2005 09:02:23 -0400

Steven Brown wondered: <<I'd like to hear from those of you who've had the opportunity to conduct or observe usability studies that involved online help. What did you learn from the experience? What observations did you make that have affected the way you write, design, or implement help?>>

Not necessarily what you're looking for, but a couple data points: Several years back, I attended an STC session by (I believe) Scott DeLoach, who reported the results of a study of software users: the statistics are long gone from my memory, but the message I took away is that a great many people don't use help because they don't know it's there; another large chunk know it's there but haven't figured out how to use it, and won't try; and another large chunk have used poorly executed help before and hated it so much they won't ever go back.

On that basis, I included a short "how to use the help system" section in my manual. I also persuaded my colleague who was delivering training on the software to spend 5 minutes on introducing the help system. I have no hard statistics on this, but he seemed very happy at the results: greatly reduced tech support calls. Since he was supporting the software and doing training in addition to his full-time job, I take this as a success story with a moral in it. <g>

Of course, to account for the third group of help users, you need to devote enough time to create a kickass help system. Scott's data, plus many anecdotal data I've seen/heard/read over the years, suggest that it only takes one bad experience with your help system to ensure that the user will never use it again if they have any other alternative. This suggests you need to have a usability review to make sure your system is as useful as you think it is.

Also, since many users start their search with the index, you need to create a kickass index. If you don't know how to do that yourself, hire an indexer to do the work--or at least pay for a couple hours of their time and bring them to your workplace to train you how to create a competent index yourself.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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Usability studies and online help: From: Steven Brown

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