A reader sent me Cherryleaf – Article – nine trends in online user assistance
There are places where I think they are right on:
“Applications can suffer from Help windows being placed in inconvenient locations — often covering the portion of the interface on which the user is working. You can embed Help into the application and make information viewable as part of the application window itself. ”
Contextual help that prevents errors is some of the most useful help you can provide. Contextual help that appears in close proximity to an error or problem is the next best help you can provide. Context is a key to understanding, proximity for relevence… it’s just good.
Other things in the article I found a bit wonky: “This movement towards organizations creating customizable products and services is likely to create a need for personalized and customizable user documentation that is quick and cheap to produce.”
I”m moderately certain they are suggesting allowing customers to customize help. I reread it a couple times, and I’m feeling pretty confident this is the point (it’s a bit less clear than some other sections)
If that is true, it’s a bad idea. My experience with customization and personalization is that it is highly task-context sensitive.
Customizing a personal homepage is perceived as useful by users, customizing a help page is not. The users I’ve seen would first prefer not to go to help at all (under any circumstance, once the reasons contextual help is so much better than documentation-style help) BUT if they do you go help they want to go in, find the answer and get out as fast as possible. No lingering over whether their headers should be sea green or sky blue, just “get me my frigging answer now please.”
Personalization in shopping is good… but I shudder to think what personalization might do in help– imagine the user seeing related help to a problem they had once before “Hey, why does the help keep telling em that? Sure, I goofed up once, but I figured it out! Why does this program hate me?”
Okay, that might be a bit excessive. But still… i think product managers should be wary of trends in design. Just because the industry is excited about this or that cool feature, doesn’t mean your product should do it too.
Anyhow, lots to think about in this article.