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by Janet M. Brandon
Jan Brandon is an online help writer and author, employed by the Army
and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES). AAFES is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, and provides retail services
to more than 7.8 million members of the military and their families serving in the U.S., Europe and the
Pacific. Jan is currently attending Amber University to earn her Master's degree in Business Administration.
She can be reached by telephone at (214) 312-2697, or via her internet address, email@example.com.
There's an open question regarding online help … is it really helpful? This study was conducted to answer
that question. This is an important issue because if software developers, online help authors and technical
writers aren't really sure that online help is helpful, or don't have any idea of why it isn't, they won't
have the information they need to design and write help systems that successfully meet users' expectations
and needs. The consequences of not meeting those expectations and needs may be costly:
users will be presented with software products that confuse and frustrate them;
software developers will lose valuable business because customers won't buy upgrades;
online help authors and writers won't have the basic foundational data they need to build a help system
that's fluid, logical and useful.
The question is simply, then, "Is online help really helpful"? And answering, it the purpose
of this research report.
Software developers and online help users: Where are they "coming from"?
Fabian-Isaacs and Raymond (1997) provided valuable insight into the mindset of both online help users
and software developers. They observe that most computer users prefer trying a software product out for
themselves as their "training," then reaching for the online help when they're "stumped"
in hopes of getting a quick answer to their question. The article gives a clear indication of the users'
attitudes toward online help: they're not comfortable using a software product that doesn't offer online
assistance, and they want that assistance to be understandable and uncomplicated, so they can get the
information they need quickly and easily. Further insight is given by Millar (1998), who wrote that with
fewer, less-educated workers in the working environment, software products need to provide adequate, immediate
help; employees just simply don't have the time to sift through manuals to find answers to their questions
while they're using their computers. The research report also points out that the cost of printing manuals
makes online help not only desirable from the user's standpoint, but from the employer's standpoint as
well, because of the cost of time and money to read and produce manuals: Bottom line is that providing
online help has become a matter of economics as well as convenience.
It's been this researcher's experience that the attitude of software developers toward online help is
one that can only be described as wanting. They don't consider online help an important part of their
applications because they don't think it's necessary. Fabian-Isaacs and Raymond (1997) confirm that opinion
and reveal their own experience with software developers, when they ask, "Why do software developers
immediately start looking for the garlic and a cross when someone mentions online help"? (p. 53).
And go on to suggest that the possible reason is because they hope the product they've designed is so
intuitive, users won't need it.
To sum up, computer users want and need some type of online help; and they don't want to do a whole lot
of thinking, searching, or navigating, to get it. The attitude of most software developers toward online
help is one of resignation rather than appreciation. But have they been "in touch" with their
The users "speak"
Grayling (1998) documented important data regarding users, and what they're actually saying. The research
report listed common end-user complaints, then described in detail, the parameters of the usability test
conducted to test their software company's online help, and the results. The study revealed that users
will ignore online help unless it's designed carefully, that the design of the help system will determine
whether or not it's utilized or ignored.
Better ideas for design and documentation
Fabian-Isaacs and Raymond (1997) and Grayling (1998) provided this researcher with helpful guidelines
for designing online help that adheres to the user's needs and desires. Cline (1996) added to the mix
by identifying ways that help files can be created and organized, so that navigation through online help
is smoother and less frustrating for the end-user. The effect that the transition from manuals to online
help is having on users was covered by Millar (1998); and the study gave direction to online help writers
and authors that would sensitively lead users into that new world, with their confidence in tact. The
report also provided ways to design and write online help that covers the issues that have arisen because
of that evolution.
The literature cited in this study was rich with insightful observations. The researchers used precise
and deliberate test methods to reach their conclusions. And the authors of the research reports and articles
shared clear, concise, and uncomplicated design and documentation ideas that if followed, can result in
the development of online help systems that will better serve users and software developers.
A user is any individual who uses a computer, regardless of their level of expertise, or
amount of time spent using a computer.
A novice is a computer user who intermittently uses only the software designed by their
employer, specifically to accomplish their particular tasks.
An expert is a computer user who regularly uses software applications such as Word, Excel,
This study is delimited to the test subjects available at the researcher's employer's location for a three-week
period. This report is also delimited to the Irving Public Library, and source selection.
A limitation in this research report is the selection of variables used in the questionnaire that are
vague, and are therefore left open for personal interpretation. Examples are "sometimes," and
The test subjects were computer users who are employed by the same employer as the researcher, with varying
levels of computer experience, from notice (approximately 75%) to expert (approximately 25%). The participants
desired were individuals who had used one of the company-designed software applications for which this
researcher, as part of a team, wrote and edited the online help; five were located, and the others were
selected because they regularly used other software applications such as MicrosoftÒ Word, Excel and WordPerfect.
There were 15 test subjects; they came from various cultural backgrounds, and ranged in age from 25 to
55; all but one were female.
A questionnaire (see Appendix
A) was the apparatus used to assemble user response to the online help systems they've used.
PROCEDURE AND SETTING
During a period of approximately one week, the participants were located and given the questionnaire.
They were asked to complete the form within the following two weeks, then call the researcher to have
it picked up. The forms were completed and turned in as requested. The location of the researcher's employer
served as the setting of the study.
The significant results that can be drawn from the participants' response to the questionnaire are:
Users utilize online help sometimes, but not regularly
Online help is almost always a source of support when using new applications
Online help is sometimes helpful, but not very helpful
Getting work done is made easier with online help
Users consider online help easy to use
Users want online help included in software applications
Users find online help more useable than manuals
Questionnaire Results Table
Use online help sometimes
Include online as a help resource when using new applications
Consider online help sometimes helpful
State getting their jobs done is easier when using online help 53%
State online help is easy to use
Think online help should always be a part of the application
Think online help is more useable than written manuals
B for all of the percentages from the respondents for each of the options on the questionnaire.
There were four comments on the questionnaire.
In response to "Online Help is: Easy to use, Difficult to use, Haven't decided," a participant
chose both Easy to use and Difficult to use, and wrote "depends on the application and how Help is
In response to "I'd like the online Help to have: More text, More graphics, Text and graphics,"
one user chose Text and graphics, and commented that "depends upon the type of information I'm searching
Another user, responding to the same questionnaire item as above, chose More text, and added "user-friendly
In response to "I think online Help is: More, Less, usable than written manuals," the user chose
More, and stipulated "if written in a user-friendly manner."
Why are the comments significant? Because they represent the users' attitude toward online help that's
been reported in earlier studies. "If online help is perceived to be intrusive and irritating, we
can surmise that users will be less inclined to use it and may well even look for ways to disable it."
(Grayling 1998, p. 174); and "users don't go to the online help to be intellectually challenged,
they go there to solve a problem." (Fabian-Isaacs and Raymond 1997, p. 56)
The users have "had their say." They've filled out the form, dutifully had them collected, the
results have been tallied, and next, the message received.
STUDY QUESTION REVISITED … AND THE ANSWER
Is online help really helpful? Yes, sometimes. A new revelation? No. As noted in this study, several other
writers and researchers have come to the same conclusion in their reports and articles. Online help is
really helpful, sometimes; but its helpfulness depends on how well it's designed, whether or not users
are able to find answers to their questions, quickly and easily, without endless digging and deciphering.
Research studies need to continue, and they should be more in-depth and varied. All types of users from
"first ever" through advanced need to be tested on a variety of online help systems, and for
all types of software applications, in order to get more clarification of "what works" and what
doesn't. The differences between the novice and expert users needs to be documented as well, to determine
whether or not "inexperience" has a significant effect on their usability of a Help system.
There also needs to be follow-up studies done that track users from one point in their online help experience
to another; what improvements they've seen, what's still a problem, and how much their familiarity with
online help improved their performance and attitude toward it.
Software developers need to make a regular practice of performing usability studies so they'll have the
user feedback they need to enable them to develop applications that won't be complicated to use. They
should also develop software that's specific to online help to provide users with an opportunity to become
"educated" and informed regarding the "particulars" of online help. Online help authors
and writers can further the cause of creating genuinely functional help systems by looking through previous
research reports and articles for design and documentation ideas that, if implemented, can give them the
"edge" in their help system development, and that may allay previous mistakes and miscues.
As users become more accustomed to the concept, commands and design of online help, many of the roadblocks
that stand in the way of their being readily helped online, will disappear; and that will strengthen the
bond as well, between participant and product.
This study hasn't produced any new or startling revelations; it merely underscores the fact that as online
help writers and authors, we haven't been producing a product that consistently satisfies users. Instead
of enabling them to get answers to their questions without intense effort, they're having to reach, look,
search, and finally, often, retreat.
But perhaps that, in itself, makes this study important. It adds to the information cauldron that with
enough substance, tasting and testing, may result in the creation of a product that is as attractively
presented as a fine meal, "goes down" just as well, and is as totally satisfying.
Copyright © 1998 by Jan