Reading Usable Help
@UsableHelp on Twitter
Gordon R. Meyer
More Helpblog ruminating
Michael Schrage's "Flaming Ideas" in Technology Review (subscription required for full access) resonates with the discussion of a blog-like approach to Help. (See "Using Blogs for Help", Jenny's "Help Blogs" and "Living Help", and Fred's "Blogs and Technical Writers".)
Schrage observes that customer forums among the big publishers, notably the New York Times, are often mired in worthless postings. He's disappointed that they aren't better maintained. "Apparently, these publications care more about editing online text than facilitating online conversations. They treat customers like readers rather than potential participants."
I think that's a common mindset among authors. After all, writing has traditionally been a one way relationship. Writers create, readers consume. Most product documentation, once released to the world, is considered an immutable work. At best it will be revised at the next release of the product. Sometimes only with addenda, leaving the flaws of the original intact in subsequent iterations.
But a blog-like Help system would completely change the dynamic of using and writing Help. Not only can the original text be improved over time, but readers interact with the author and each other. As Schrage notes, "[The Open Source] community understands how to use its skills to turn readers and posters into design collaborators who can create value where none existed. These forums employ techniques that boost the chances for innovative interactions."
See also "Community-Driven Documentation for Free Software?" at Slashdot for other interesting perspectives. (Thanks to Darren Barefoot.)