Won’t You Please Help Me? Usability Heuristic #10

The final piece of advice he offers to increase usability of any software system isn’t as much about the system itself as what is provided with the system: Help and Documentation.

We have arrived at the final usability heuristic from Dr. Jakob Nielsen. The final piece of advice he offers to increase usability of any software system isn’t as much about the system itself as what is provided with the system: Help and Documentation.

Help and documentation

Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.
– Dr. Jakob Nielsen, 10 Heuristics for User Interface Design

This heuristic acknowledges that while errors should be simple to understand and easy to recover from, there are times when more information is needed. When you need additional information, it should be easy to find and easy to use. There are too many technologies and platforms that do offer documentation, but when a users accesses it, the documentation proves to be hundreds of pages long and run the gamut from basic program installation to FAQ and Troubleshooting. This is not particularly helpful for the user, who goes to the documentation with a specific task in mind. Dr. Nielsen reminds us that this documentation needs to meet four key criteria in order to have high usability:

  1. Easy to Search
    Ctrl+F is your friend. This simple keyboard command works with searchable documents, such as web pages or PDF’s, to make it easy for users to find what they are looking for. Ctrl+F brings up a search box in your program, which users can type keywords into and click search to find all instances of the word in the document. This makes it infinitely easier for users to find what they are looking for, rather than having to read a very large document. Make your documentation, specifically your longer documents, easy to search by adding elements like a Table of Contents and Searchable functionality.
  2. Focused on a Users Task
    Even better than making a documentation searchable, you should consider customizing it to the task the user is trying to accomplish. This can be  challenge depending on the specific platform, but it does greatly increase the usability of the documentation and can be started in a simple way. For example, if one page of a program is used to accomplish one specific task, consider adding documentation to the screen (normally accessible from a help button) that would pertain only to the tasks that are normally accomplished using that screen. You can’t catch every circumstance, but you can catch a great majority of them using this method.
  3. List Concrete Steps to be Carried Out
    Your documentation and help should be specific enough that users can leave it and know exactly what they need to do. Skip the generalizations and make sure that users are given a list or checklist of things they need to complete in order to complete the process or task at hand. The goal should be to not leave the users guessing what they need to do next or forcing users to fill in the gaps in your documentation with their knowledge…remember that some users will be brand new to the system and will not have any background knowledge coming in. Leave nothing to chance.
  4. Not Be Too Large
    If I just need a little nibble to help me along, don’t lay out a seven course meal. One of my personal frustrations with many versions of online documentation is when I am directed to something the size of several copies of a Russian Masterpiece that covers everything from installation to database functions to FAQ. It may make for great reading when I’m suffering from a case of insomnia, but it is less than helpful at the office. That’s not to say you shouldn’t provide this Doc Monster when people want it, but consider breaking it up in multiple pieces of documentation around a separate theme so it is less overwhelming and more useful.

Keep in mind that these tips aren’t limited to written documentation; they are very helpful for all manner of help functions, including video tutorials and how to’s.

Did you miss a post in this series? Click these helpful links to review anything you may have missed:

The Usability Heuristics Series

Status Report! Usability Heuristic #1
The Real World: Usability Heuristic #2
I Didn’t Mean It! Usability Heuristic #3
Consistency is Key: Usability Heuristic #4
User, Save Thyself! Usability Heuristic #5
This Looks Familiar: Usability Heuristic #6
Be Flexible: Usability Heuristic #7
Too Much of a Good Thing: Usability Heuristic #8
Congratulations…it’s An Error! Usability Heuristic #9

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