Reading Usable Help
@UsableHelp on Twitter
Gordon R. Meyer
Omit unnecessary help
At The Interface Mafia website an article by Sven Ryen provides a nice overview of help technology in Mac OS X and Mac OS 9. But even if you're not a Mac person, you should check out Ryen's discussion of what makes a good help system, and his useful list of references.
Best of all, note the list of information you can omit from onscreen help. Included is one of my pet peeves -- installation instructions. These are almost always a hold-over from the land of printed documentation. Back then, documentation and the product existed independent of each other. With onscreen help, it is almost certain that the user has already accomplished the installation, or they wouldn't be seeing your words at all! When installation instructions are in onscreen help, you have to wonder if the author was paying attention or thinking about their audience. It calls into question the veracity of the whole help system.
Yes, omitting information is sometimes viewed as anathema, but only by those who are more interested in completeness -- as if help is a collection of Jones Soda bottle labels -- than serving the user. Check out the article for a list of few other candidates for the bit bucket.