According to Jacob Nielsen's How Users Read on the Web, usability of web content can be improved drastically by making content more scannable. Many of his ideas would apply equally well to online help. So, how can technical writers leverage this information to make the help for their product more usable?
Use granular topics
Long reference topics and procedures should be broken into smaller, granular topics that users can scan. Often users lose confidence in the help because they cannot find the information they are looking for, even when the information is present in the topics they are viewing. It just isn't presented in a format that is easy to digest.
Break your topics down into smaller chunks and users will have a better chance of spotting the information they need.
Add subheadings and mid-topic jumps
Use meaningful subheadings and mid-topic jumps to allow users to quickly scan for and access the content they seek. Don't make them read through long topics packed with information that is unrelated to the task they are trying to complete.
Use a flowchart
Graphics are much more scannable than text. For complex procedures, provide a flowchart to help users quickly grasp the overall process. Link each step in the flowchart to a related procedure.
Organize your table of contents
If your help includes a table of contents, be sure to structure the table of contents so that it accurately reflects the organization of the help. The table of contents serves as a conceptual map of your help. An accurate map will help users quickly find the content they seek.
Step out lengthy procedures
Use a numbered list for procedures instead of stringing together sentences, and limit each step to a single task (or a couple of smaller tasks).
Users access the help when they are stuck. They may already be half way through the task described by your procedure. By stepping out procedures into smaller, scannable steps, you allow users to quickly jump into the procedure at the appropriate step to complete their task.
Use bulleted lists whenever possible
If your help contains lists of features, prerequisites for a task, or other list-type information, be sure to format the content appropriately. A bulleted list is more scannable than sentences in paragraph format. Also, each individual bulleted item will stand out to users, thus decreasing the possibility of a user overlooking any single item.
Emphasize when appropriate
Be judicious in your use of bold and italics. Too much of either will decrease the overall impact and distract users from the content that is really important. Use bold or italics for emphasis when it matters most.
Link related topics
Hyperlinks are one of the most useful features of online help. They also make your content easy to scan.
Use hyperlinks carefully to take users only to content that is related to the task they are trying to complete. The overuse of hyperlinks is not only a distraction, but it also can take users away from the very content they seek. Be careful when including them in the middle of a topic. Put related hyperlinks at the bottom of the topic, so that users aren't steered away from important material.
Hopefully these tips will improve the usability of your help, and allow your users to quickly scan for and find the information they need.
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