Element-Based Information System Revitalizes Online Help and Documentation

By Ron Lee

If you were a gold miner and you knew where an unearthed, rich vein of gold existed, which would seem more valuable to you: the gold you can’t reach without equipment, or the equipment to give you access to the gold?

That premise is analogous to the question information developers have debated since presenting information for the benefit of others first began. Which is more important to the user: the information itself, or access to the information? Whether it is hard copy documentation, an online adaptation, or an online help system, both sides of the debate are ultimately important.

However, numerous usability studies have identified inherent weaknesses in conventional online help and documentation systems when the accessibility of information is evaluated. Though this article doesn’t come close to discussing all of the issues, it does cover some of the major ones, and it reveals how an innovative system such as Element-Based Information System (EIS) can overcome those weaknesses and provide user assistance that breaches the boundaries imposed by conventional design.

Conventional Online Help and Documentation Usability Issues: Among the weaknesses cited in usability studies is that the methods used to access online help and documentation provide little relevancy to the situation that instigated the need for that information. This fact alone increases the time required to locate relevant information, usually through a table of contents or an index, or sometimes through a rudimentary search feature. The studies corroborate what is well-known: most users would rather enlist the help of a coworker or make a call to technical support than to be distracted from their tasks by searching for information that might or might not be in the system.

Even if the user can find topics that address the situation, the topics include information (such as concepts, overviews, and other ancillary material) that the user doesn’t want or need at the time. In addition, conventional help and documentation topics generally ignore the different details of information that different levels of expertise require. Combining information for all levels of expertise into one topic forces the user – whether a beginner or an expert – to sift through unnecessary information.

To add even more frustration to a user’s experience with conventional help and documentation systems, the system usually provides poor navigation within and between topics, making it difficult to find the trail to the current topic or know where to go for further information.

The result has been that the overall experience for most users of conventional online help and documentation systems is one of frustration and even failure. Though it might be an unfair and inaccurate measure of product quality, these feelings of frustration and failure are often transferred to the product the online help and documentation are supposedly supporting.

EIS addresses these usability issues and many others through a revolutionary system design that provides relevancy to the current situation, with topics that present information in discrete categories and in levels-of-learning that address user expertise, not only within the topics but also in the user interface.

There are two aspects to EIS. The first aspect is EIS with navigation, and the second is the context-sensitive aspect.

EIS with Navigation: EIS with navigation offers user expertise recognition through information elements that present topic data in individual units. Inherently, the design also supports levels-of-learning by displaying increasingly remedial information in associated elements. Because each topic has its own informational requirement, not every topic will contain all information elements. However, the elements available to be placed into any one topic are “procedure,” “about,” “reference,” “example,” “tutorial,” “related topics,” and “tips and techniques.” Users choose the information element that best addresses their need at the current time. Additionally, EIS makes a provision for users who might want to see all the information elements in one coordinated topic by providing a “show all content” button.

However, the user interface isn’t the only area of the system design where user expertise and levels-of-learning take place. Within the “how to” topics, the procedures are presented first in a “summary” for those who require only a straightforward, step-by-step procedure and then in a “detailed discussion” for those who need more in-depth information.

A table of contents, index, advanced search, and other critical navigation elements that lead the user to additional relevant information completes this concept of information access within a system. Unlike conventional systems, EIS uses an Internet browser as its presentation device and therefore provides the user with access to outside sources, such as professional organizations and Internet-based references.

Beyond the distinctive interface design, an efficient navigation technique within the topics themselves makes interaction among information elements and other topics clear and efficient.

Context-Sensitivity: The context-sensitive aspect provides the crucial relevancy to the current information needs of the user, as well as navigation techniques for pursuing additional information. Context-sensitive topics make accessing relevant information faster than a phone call and perhaps even more informative and accurate than asking a coworker.

Context-sensitive information is accessed from a dialog box or window of the product application. Pressing F1 or clicking an icon while a dialog box or window is active tells EIS to display a topic that is directly relevant and associated with that dialog box or window. Not only does the resulting topic contain descriptions of the dialog box or window controls, but it also lists all of the application features where the dialog box or window is used, as well as interactive links to their “how to” topics. Additionally, the user can open the EIS with navigation at any time.

The EIS Information Web Site: Though EIS was designed primarily as an alternative to locally based online help and documentation paradigms, its Internet-based properties allow it to easily become server residential. Many benefits are added to the unique design of the EIS system by allowing server-based remote access. Here are a few of the additional features:

  • Current information updates: Published data, for any or all product information systems, is updated as the information is updated. There is no need to wait until the next release before users can receive the latest corrections and upgrades to data.
  • Knowledge base: A repository where application issues and solutions are researched.
  • Direct feedback to information developers: A feedback system where users rate topics and give constructive feedback directly to information developers, thereby contributing to higher quality topics and information.
  • Community communication: A central location where users can discuss issues, solutions, hints, and tips with other users.
  • Instant information to the technical support staff: A dedicated area for tech support personnel makes critical information immediately available to them, whether they are remote or on-site.

A Robust and Easy to Use System: The overall experience of EIS is one of a user quickly receiving robust help, relevant to the situation, with easy access to related and ancillary information.

Ron Lee is an information developer for Startel Corporation, overseeing design, development, and implementation of information presentation systems.

[From Connection Magazine December 2008]