How do you architect a Help experience? Well, the common wisdom is to design it around the user tasks. But what does that that really mean and how do you implement such a design strategy?
Let's start by asking how a user gets to a Help topic. There are four ways:
- Through a context-sensitive link on the user interface itself
- Through the Help table of contents
- Through a link from another Help topic
- Through a search/index results list
Alan Cooper, author of The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, points out that design works best when it targets a specific user. I think a similar idea for Help design is appropriate: Decide which of the four access points is your critical user experience and then optimize your design for that experience.
I think the most important user assistance experience is what happens when the user clicks the context-sensitive link. The user is on task and the Help needs to be focused and useful so that the user can get back on task as soon as possible.
The product I am working on now has page-level context-sensitive Help for every page in the application. We are designing and developing "task support clusters" around every one of those entry points. These are the critical conceptual, task, and reference topics designed specifically to support someone who has clicked on Help from a page-level Help link or button. The first topic the user gets is typically one we call a "keystone concept," a blend of what does this page do, show me an example, give me some tips--whatever seems most appropriate for someone being on that page and asking for help. Part of that keystone concept includes links to task information as well as higher level and deeper level conceptual topics. After designing and while writing the task support cluster, accommodate the other ways those topics could be accessed. Here are some implications:
- Don't put navigation and obvious UI interaction information on the keystone concept topic.
- Don't burden the users with a link farm right away that overwhelms them with new choices to make. Add value at every click; this first click should give valuable insight that the user can apply.
- Make sure that the user can link to navigational information from conceptual topics in case those topics are accessed through the TOC or other non-UI links.
- Put the appropriate task, reference, and additional conceptual links on the bottom of the keystone concept topic. When choosing how advanced or how elementary the available topics should be, assume the user was smart enough to be in the application at a fairly deep level to begin with.
The last bullet point is a key to staying parsimonious with your links. If your Help provides basic domain educational topics (for example, Firewalls 101) , collect them in their own "book" and put it in the TOC. That way, you can link to the book from a task support cluster and not provide a lot of distracting links and unnecessary navigation within the Help file for someone who is on task.
Finally, let the TOC emerge from an analysis of the content this task support approach creates.