Landing Pads

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Helicopter landing pad


I’m guessing that you don’t want to miss that landing pad because if you do you’ll end up ditched in the ocean, floating around aimlessly and with no real idea of what to do next. Can you imagine how horrifying it would be if that happened? Floating there, unable to get back to land and with who knows what swimming around underneath you…

Yet this is the predicament that many users of online help find themselves in, having strayed into the online help they have been cast into an ocean of information with no real idea of how to get back to shore. Ohhh sure, we tell ourselves that the there is an easy way to get to the information they want through our carefully crafted Table of Contents, or perhaps a more direct route can be navigated using that Index you toiled over for hours, or better yet if they use the Search functionality they’ll find what they want. Right?

And, ultimately, yes these mechanisms work. If you know how an Index is structured you can quite quickly navigate to a keyword that probably matches the information you are searching for and should, hopefully, take you almost directly to the very help topic you need. Same goes for the Table of Contents although they are a little more prescriptive and you need to know what you are looking for to be able to find it, and of course the Search will provide you with several help topics that are, probably, what you are looking for.

Meanwhile the sharks have gathered and are nibbling at your feet!

At the UA conference last year, Matthew Ellison gave a presentation on what he termed “Keystone Topics” and in the Summer edition of the ISTC Communicator magazine (again, chock full of good stuff, it’s worth the price of membership alone if you ask me) Paul Filby covers something similar, outlining how to provide “The perfect help-system landing page”.

And so, with all of that in mind that is my task today (yes, a Saturday).

The concept is simple enough. You create a single topic that will be displayed to the user when they bash our old friend the F1 button. That topic is unique to the help system and, based on context, can be used to display a smarter set of links to potentially useful information. If you have the means you could display the most commonly viewed topics or, as I’m doing, you can point to the start of several paths covering the most commonly used areas of the product.

I don’t expect to get ours right the first time round, but hopefully the concept will work. I’m including a small addition to the foot of each such topic, asking users to contact us if they have improvements. It’s only on the landing pages but I’m hoping it might drive a nice little cycle of innovation with direct feedback from the users driving the content of the landing pages in the future.

Hopefully the landing pages will give our users some where dry to stand and survey the land a little, with clear signs to help them get to where they want to go.

4 thoughts on “Landing Pads

  1. Margaret

    I’d like to see the finished product, Gordon. Having floundered around in Microsoft and other Help systems for various products, I have often felt than no one considered the user, especially when it seemed nothing was named what a user would want to search for. Indexing, which is an art, is far less common today than when I started in Tech Com field. And judging by the poor indexing available in many Help systems, a lost and misunderstood one. The Help usually does contain the needed information, but the expected tags or keys to finding it are obscured in creative or proprietary terminology. If the poor user already knows the new software’s terminology, s/he no longer needs the Help!

  2. Gordon McLean Post author

    Margaret – I’ll direct our sales team your way then (sorry, it’s all locked down).

    You are correct that Indexing is a dying art. Personally it’s something I know the basics of but not much more, and feedback from our users is that they just search the online help, so it’s not as crucial for us, as long as the content contains the right terminology I guess?

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