Reading Usable Help
@UsableHelp on Twitter
Gordon R. Meyer
A Documentation Catch-22
In an excellent overview of outliners for the Macintosh, Ted Goranson observes that most of them do not provide onscreen Help using their own facilities:
"Incidentally, I find it absolutely goofy that outliners in general do not deliver their documentation in their own format. It is doubly strange with these two that have so much to offer."
That's a seemingly logical idea, and I venture to guess one that many a marketing department has floated, but thankfully the writers for most products recognize the pitfalls of a nepotistic approach. Setting aside the desire to showcase the product, there aren't many benefits.
From a user experience perspective there is a lot of benefit to using the help system provided by the operating system. Users will already be familiar with it, which is important. They're probably frustrated by trying to figure out their task and having to confront an unfamiliar help system will only compound their difficulties. And, of course, if the very features that they're struggling with require mastery in order to use the documentation, the situation degrades rapidly.
Another good reason to avoid the self-documentation approach is that the system's Help system has been designed expressly for the purpose of delivering onscreen instructional material. Although Apple Help and Windows Help both need further improvement, there's no better choice when considering the myriad of refined features, and cumulative research and experience, that they deliver.
That said, there's certainly a role for example and tutorial files, provided in an application's native format, for users to explore and learn from. These can't replace documentation -- they speak only to users who learn by example and like to tinker -- but their popularity and practicality is often unmatched. Sample files that show off an application's abilities, particularly if they're complete enough that a user can adapt them to their own use, will often reduce, but not replace, the need for onscreen Help.