Simplifying online help

Dear Style Master: How can I reorganize my thousand-topic online help system supporting a business software application? Customers are having trouble navigating the system to find out how to use the software to do their jobs!

– Everything but the Kitchen Sink

Dear Sink: It’s great that you know what customers think about your system. Often we labor over product documentation, release it, and never know the value of our work to customers. As far as reorganizing, I suggest taking a cue from Thoreau: Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Start by creating workflow diagrams for each task customers will perform. In each diagram, list topics in the order in which you would use them to accomplish a task. Be sure that every topic in the system is listed in at least one workflow diagram. Hint: If a topic doesn’t fit into one of the workflow diagrams, maybe you can delete it from the system.

Next, look at the diagrams and see if there are topics you can eliminate, being careful not to eliminate a topic critical to multiple tasks. For example, identify background, reference, and detailed instructional material that you can move to another document, like a user guide. You can always link to the user guide from the help system so that the reader can find additional information easily. You might also be able to delete unnecessary graphics and confusing cross-references. If you are in doubt about cutting specific topics, ask an editor, reviewer, or peer to weigh in on whether or not to remove the items from the system.

Finally, review the existing system topic by topic. Edit wordy text and eliminate the obvious – phrases like “Respond to the ‘Are you sure?’ prompt” may not really be necessary.

After you revise and release your help system, continue your quest to know how customers view your system, through usability testing, standard customer feedback tools, or maybe a friendly phone call.

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