The Hokey Pokey, That's What It's All About--
This week I judged some online competition entries for STC, and I reviewed an encyclopedia article on Electronic Documentation. The encyclopedia article talked about the main navigational schemes: Linear, Hierarchical, Web, and Grid. The entries I looked at for STC had classic HTML Help structures of hierarchical TOC with extensive web linking among the topics.
I think we overlook the basic structure that works best in user assistance: The Hub (or its extended model, the Snowflake). A hub has a central page with links off of that page. The navigation is fairly limited, however, between hub and satellite pages. You go to the satellite page and you return to the hub. Kind of like the Hokey Pokey: "You put your right leg in; you take your right leg out." The Snowflake consists of hubs arranged in larger systems of hubs.
Hub structures let users explore safely: step in, step back. They maintain a mental model that is easy to visualize and keep track of.
I'm not recommending pure hubs. It's great to be able to take shortcuts back to the top of the structure, and any good navigation system will be a hybrid. But I think a dominant model must emerge if the user is going to be able to create a mental map of the land. Overall, I think the hub is the easiest model.
Practical Implications for UA Design
Keep your information model simple, and resist the urge to link to topics that do not have direct and immediate impact on the user's context. For example, there is no need to link to a topic on Configuring Reports from a topic on Configuring Work Flows, just because they both deal with "configuring."
If the Hokey Pokey teaches us an important lesson in UA architecture, another childhood lesson can also be relevant. An elaborate trail of breadcrumbs never got anyone out of the woods.