Reading Usable Help
@UsableHelp on Twitter
Gordon R. Meyer
Reviewing onscreen help
In a New York Times review of Mac OS X 10.2 ("Jaguar"), David Pogue offers praise for the product. However, as journalists are expected to do, he balances the article with criticisms. Pogue writes "The online help is abysmal, a few minor bugs remain, and [comments about the upgrade price]."
"Abysmal." Ouch. Unfortunately, that's all he says, so the offhand comment is impossible to judge. As an adjective, abysmal has a strong negative connotation, but means things like "limitless, without bottom, and profound." Not much to go on there. Pogue, the author of an after-market book on Mac OS X (one of his "Missing Manual" series) is often thought of as a clear writer, but here he misses the mark. There's the sting of a caustic comment, but nothing of substance.
In general, it is difficult for documentation authors to get useful feedback on their work. The onscreen help is rarely mentioned in product reviews at all, and is usually only included when the reaction is negative. It's certainly not the reviewer's job to provide feedback -- their audience is the buying public. But there are a few reviewers, just as Jim Heid, who will include some information about how they arrived at their conclusion. Ultimately, this is useful for everyone. It allows customers to determine if they are likely to agree with the reviewer's perspective, and it allows the authors of the documentation to cull out a few nuggets to which they can react. Is that too much to ask?