Reading Usable Help
@UsableHelp on Twitter
Gordon R. Meyer
Gems from a WinWriters usability study
WinWriters is an excellent resource for onscreen help authors, even if you're not developing for Microsoft platforms. In an article by Matthew Ellison, you'll learn the results of a usability study of different help models for a web-based conference registration system.
Unlike many web usability studies, this one identifies that usability is closely intertwined with the content, not just the implementation. They found that when the help contained domain information, users who looked at the help ending up being more successful. That is, help that included "real" information (prices, rules, conditions, etc) instead of procedural (click this, press tab to move between fields, click Clear to erase your input) was more useful.
Also, one version version of the help system used "Show more Help" links to lead users to additional information. No one clicked these links. As help authors, we're enamored of making sure our readers have access to everything we've done -- all the related topics and so on -- but in the real world people want to get out of the help, and back to work, as quickly as possible.
Near the end of the report is an anecdote that that is so true in my experience. A participant says "I hate going to help!". But, in desperation, does so anyway and actually finds an answer. At the next impasse, there is no hesitation in turning to the help system. Users will use the help, but poor past experiences are a big barrier that we all must overcome. The best way to do so, is to make sure our help is truly useful.