Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Is It Help or Is It a Pop Quiz?--
I love the Southern expression, "Bless their hearts." It's kind-hearted, but with a tinge of self-righteous superiority. As in, "They're doing the best they can, bless their hearts." It's also sympathetic with no commitment to be helpful. As in, "Can't log into the critical network drive that has all your work stored on it? Bless your heart." I think error messages should end with it. "System 404 error, website can't be found, bless your heart."

I went into a Help file recently trying to get help about an application. I used the context-sensitive link expecting to learn more about the page I was on. I got a page with an anemic stem sentence with seven links. I wasn't quite sure which one would help me so I guessed and clicked one. It expanded into five more links. They were trying their best to help me, bless their hearts.

But my response was not one of gratitude. What I wanted to say was, "Hey, who's supposed to be asking the questions, me or you?" Since the Help screens that were being 'anything but' were part of a Help system I am working on, I get to roll up my sleeves and do something about it.

So we are now working on a new architecture, one that emphasizes giving useful information on the first click and then offering a simple, two-path fork: One that gets the user directly to the task information (procedure) and one that takes the user to a guidelines topic. Each of those topics can have more links on them (for example, extended background topics linked from the guidelines topic), but by then the users are smarter and can understand their choices better.

On simple screens, we can make either the guidelines topic or the task topic part of the initial information screen. (In those cases, if the UI is self-explanatory, consider making the guidelines topic the first topic and link to the task topic from it.) On complex, multitask screens, such as multitab screens, the Help link could open a topic that has a Tab/Description table. For each tab description, provide the double link, i.e., task or guideline.

  • Don't make the users click through a link farm before they get to anything useful. Give them insight into the application at their entry point into the Help system.
  • Don't overload the user with decisions at their entry point into the Help system. Expand their choices as they travel the drill-down path.
In short, the user is rarely better served by adding choices to a cognitive load that is already being taxed (they clicked on Help for a reason). Be parsimonious with links and give new information or insight at every click.

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