Tuesday, April 9, 2013
H is for Help
© Photographer Razvan Oncescu | Agency: Dreamstime.com
An important businessman visiting Seattle was being whisked to important business meetings by private helicopter.
Mid flight, thick fog descended suddenly on the city. The pilot swore. Nothing was visible outside and his navigation instruments chose that moment to malfunction. He admitted that they were lost. He inched forward in the fog, until at last the lights of a tall building loomed ahead. Approaching closer, they could see people working in the building.
The businessman rummaged in his briefcase for paper and pen, and held up a sign in the helicopter window which read, "Where are we?"
Quick as a flash, a man in the nearby building held up a sign which said, "You are in a helicopter."
The businessman swore, but the pilot smiled, wheeled the craft around, and ten minutes later landed at their destination.
"We were lost," the businessman said. "How did you know where we were?"
"When I saw their sign," the pilot replied, "I knew we were at the Microsoft building. Their help was technically accurate, but completely useless."
Many help systems are really lists of technical reference topics. They assume you already know about the topics being discussed and just want some esoteric command or bit of syntax that you'd forgotten. In other words, they are no help unless you already know an awful lot about what you are trying to do.
Help needs to address many audiences, at different levels of expertise, and needs to answer more than the bread-and-butter "How to" type questions.
Sadly, the less-than-helpful variety proliferates because it is the easiest to write.
Make sure your help is helpful.