Reading Usable Help
@UsableHelp on Twitter
Gordon R. Meyer
Welcome, friend. Usable Help exists to discuss, examine, and observe the state of documentation, onscreen help in particular, for computers, software, and consumer products.
I'm not one to mince words. While others might pine for lengthy printed manuals, I come to bury them. Their shadow casts a pall over the onscreen presentation of information. To the extent that most people believe onscreen help and its ilk are ineffective, difficult to use, and generally better ignored.
Economic and organizational pressures are killing off printed documentation anyway, at least in its physical form. But whether it is a "print it yourself" PDF on the CD, or a quick-dump of a book into the help system, onscreen documentation suffers from its "dead tree" ancestry.
The most basic problem is that many help systems are still written for paper media. They're narrative and descriptive, written in a tone and style that ensures understanding independent of the software being described. That is, a book about a software product can be read on a train, under a tree, or before you've installed the product. (That's why most books start with a chapter on "Installation" which is useful once, if ever.)
But onscreen help is, in essence, part of the very software it is describing. The implications of this are both basic and revolutionary. Simply, it changes how documentation is used. Beyond that, it offers opportunities far beyond what paper could ever provide. As a result, we will all benefit from useful, informative, and usable help systems.