Monday, August 13, 2007

Not All Questions Are Hard--
During a walkthrough last week of some Help topics I had written, my colleagues and I were discussing when to put a link in a step in a Help task. We dislike sending the user to other topics in the middle of a task, lest their Help experience start to look like one those Family Circus cartoons where little Jeffy's footsteps can be traced across the entire neighborhood several times and back. The particular problem I was trying to deal with was a situation where I felt the UI was asking the user to make a tough decision (what kind of encryption algorithm did the user want to use) and I could not do justice to the choices within the confines of the choice table (option/description) we typically use in our steps. I felt the need to provide an in-task link to a reference topic that compared the three algorithms we accommodate.

But then someone asked an interesting question, "Are we asking them to decide or are we just asking them to tell us what they already use?"

Wow, does that make a big difference in what the Help has to provide! I've always been big on the fact that Help should support user decision-making when forms have to be filled in. For example, it's not enough to tell users what the upper and lower limits of a parameter are or list the choices available, Help should assist them pick an appropriate value or make an appropriate choice. But my problem might be that I'm treating all fields as if they are decision fields.

For example, if a form asks which type of email client you are using and offers two radio buttons labeled POP3 and SMTP, does the Help have to define, compare, and contrast these choices? If the user doesn't know which one he or she is using, does knowing what they are make it any easier to select the right button?

As basic as this might seem, it is a point I have been missing and adds an important question to my task analysis, "Is this screen asking the users to make decisions or just provide information about their environment?"

In a way, it reminds me of the Family Circus-like joke about the boy who asks his father "Where did I come from? " The father sweats it out and gets through the whole birds and bees thing only to have the son retort, "Well, Jimmy says he's from Ohio and I was wondering where I came from."

Not all questions are hard.

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