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Will More Technology Improve Online Help?

October 27, 2004

Synopsis: Microsoft has a new infrastructure for online help that offers some efficiencies but those gains won't improve 'user assistance.' And they continue a costly industry habit of focusing inwardly, on tools, instead of outwardly, on users.

I recently came across a Microsoft article touting its new generation of help authoring, Longhorn (as in 'impaled upon...').

Having already been dismayed at the usability losses incurred by Flash Help and PDF-as-Help, this is yet another attempt at sprucing up the technology in the name of better serving confused users and it will surely backfire even if no one ever notices or holds it accountable. (I almost forgot, have you ever used one of MS's task-panel help system that trap you in trite procedures, never allowing you to figure out how the system works or what a control does?)

By my estimation this new system is 95% diminishing returns (DR). When something is 50% DR it is simple ignorance, the product of weak thinking; 75%=willful neglect; 95%=a sham, a costly diversion at the expense of genuine value.

Of what I perceive as Longhorn's main forces:

  • I understand and appreciate the value of moving toward structured, plain-text editing (XML) but we don't need a new, probably-proprietary infrastructure for that.
  • I continue to be highly doubtful of the monontonous plea for the holy grail of 'semantic markup' whether in content-centric websites or Help. Yes, every efficiency gained should return value to users as time can be spent on genuine research, but you should already be extremely efficient with help editing.
  • As for the info-fascist notion that Longhorn better helps users because MS knows what users need and MS says it's task info, don't tell users what they need... tell them answers to software mysteries.

Once users need help because of the usability failures of a system, the limiting factor in Help is <blare of trumpets>information</bot>, not authoring tools or presentation doo-dads. Good information, for those still uninitiated, comes from merciless research, good writing, and back-to-basics Help systems with a TOC/Index/Search. (For an example of such a system, on a web page, see another one of my sites, This focus on technology is a continuation of the inward-facing emphasis of the IT industry, which perpetuates the cycle of violence against users.

In usability circles, it is a recent concern that we need to start 'speaking with a single voice.' I see this Help issue as one crying out for the synergy of a monotonous message:

Don't judge what information users need or how they need it; document everything and present it in a fully-accessible, WinMac-compliant system with a TOC/Index/Search panel, preferably available anytime, anywhere.

More info on Longhorn:

"My interest in usability arose from the pain and tears of patching the wounds of suffering interface designs with the inadequate bandages of help files and user guides." — Daniel Cohen

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