Product help isn't the most exciting stuff to read. Also, there isn't much incentive for users to commit most of it to memory. Often users are just digging through the help to find an easy way out when they are stuck; they don't want to become power users.
Despite the lack of user interest in committing your help to memory, there are changes you can make so that your help is easier to absorb. By making these changes, users comprehension will increase, and fewer users will find themselves nodding off while reading through a help topic for the tenth time.
Write granularly to avoid information overload
Limit the amount of conceptual information you present to users in a single topic. Instead of throwing everything at them at once, try to deduce what conceptual information is necessary in order for your users to complete tasks related to that topic. Don't give them more than they need, or less. (The exception here would be repetition of vital information, as we'll discuss below.)
For example, if you are teaching users how to print documents from your software, don't fill the topic with information about setting up printers. Instead, present that information in your software setup topics. Stick to relevant concepts in your printing procedures, such as how to choose an appropriate printer driver or change printing preferences.
Use repetition effectively
Repetition is essential in user documentation because it provides familiarity and helps pound important information into the user's memory. The more familiar content is, the easier it will be for users to assimilate into their existing knowledge.
Try to repeat important concepts at various stages in your procedures and reference topics. If you are documenting software that requires users to back up their data frequently, be sure to prompt them to do so in many of your procedures, even if data backups don't seem directly related to a specific procedure. Repetition will help users develop habits for using your product effectively.
Repetition is also necessary for warnings. Don't think that mentioning the risks of a dangerous operation once in your documentation is sufficient for alerting users to those risks. Instead, repeat the warning often.
Create interactive content
When it comes to memory, doing is better than reading. Use Captivate, Authorware, and similar user assistance tools to build various levels of interactive content into your help. The best user assistance will describe a task and then allow the user to practice that task, thus solidifying it in the user's memory.
Teachers have been doing this for ages, because it works. Now, with advancements in user assistance tools, you have the ability to build interactive practice into your help.
Use examples to connect content to real-world situations
By providing a hypothetical context for a task, you increase the user's understanding of when and why such a task would be necessary. Context is especially important for advanced features of the product, or features that wouldn't be used on a regular basis.
For example, let's say your company produces graphics software. Instead of merely documenting what the Color Replace tool does (replaces the active foreground color with the background color), describe a situation in which the tool would be beneficial. By explaining that the tool is optimal for precise replacement of colors in situations where the Paintbrush tool would be clumsy, you increase the chance that a user will use the tool efficiently.
Leverage browse sequences to present content in a progressive order
Teachers don't teach reading before the alphabet. Such an approach doesn't make much sense. Instead, they teach the alphabet before, or simultaneously with, word recognition and phonics.
Your help should be structured with the same principle in mind. While you can't anticipate where a user will land in your help if they access content via Search, Index, or the Table of Contents, you can use browse sequences to provide a sensible learning path from foundational concepts to advanced concepts. That way, no matter where a user begins reading, they always have a clear path forward to more difficult topics, and backward to more basic topics.
Enable favorites to reduce reliance upon memory
Don't force your users to search the help for procedures that they use on a regular basis. Instead, allow them to mark their favorite procedures for quick access later. That way they can learn these procedures over time. Soon they will no longer need to refer to their favorite topics, and will replace them with new favorites as product expertise increases.
Some help formats, such as Adobe AIR help, have favorites built into the help output. If your tool doesn't offer favorites as a feature, consider whether you can build such functionality into your help via scripting. Your users will appreciate the effort.
More great posts: