Reading Usable Help
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Gordon R. Meyer
Improve your Help's topic titles and summaries
In Secrets of Great Web Headings and Summaries, Gerry McGovern provides useful tips for improving user's first impressions of your content. Much of what he prescribes applies directly to onscreen documentation. As he says, you're not writing a mystery novel, so tell the reader who did it right away.
In onscreen Help, putting this into practice means writing topic titles that are focused on the user's real-world task and communicate what is they'll accomplish by following a procedure. The emphasis should always be on the user's task, not orientated around the software's interface. For example, a help topic named "Printing multiple copies of a document" is better than "Using the print options dialog box." Both help pages will cover similar material, the but the first title, or "headline" in McGovern's parlance, will allow users to more easily identify that the topic is relevant to what they want to accomplish. Nobody, other than a QA engineer, wants to use the print options dialog box; it's simply a means to an end, so give your customers a break and adopt a user-centered task orientation so they can stop fishing for the information they need.
Another good reason to write good topic titles and summaries--which are displayed by most internet search engines and some help systems, such as Apple Help--is to improve the usability of search results. Here too McGovern's advise applies:
"Most people just look at the first couple of words -- and only read on if they are engaged by those words," according to Eyetrack III, a study which analyzed how the eye moves around a news webpage. "For headlines -- especially longer ones -- it would appear that the first couple of words need to be real attention-grabbers if you want to capture eyes."
A task-orientated topic title and a short summary that further illuminates the purpose and applicability of the topic will help users identify which search results are most likely to answer their question. You should also consider revising your topic titles so that the first few words convey more specific meaning. For example, generic terms like "Setting up" and "Selecting options" that appear at the start of many titles might only be serving to make the content harder to scan.
Thanks for the link, Fred.