11. user support


Discuss the presentation issues involved in the design of effective and relevant help systems.

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How help is accessed by the user:

  • command - usually requires the user to specify a topic, but may fit most consistently within the rest of the interface
  • button - readily accessible, does not interfere with existing applications, but may not always provide information specific to the user's needs. (If a keyboard or mouse button, can support context sensitivity)
  • function - flexible since it can be activated when required and disabled when not
  • separate application - allows flexibility and multiple help styles, but may interfere with the user's current application

How help is displayed:

  • new window - possible in windowed systems
  • whole screen or part of the screen
  • pop-up boxes
  • at command line level

Appropriate presentation style depends on level of help being offered and space it requires, e.g. inappropriate to open a manual page line by line, or take over the whole screen to give the user a hint.

Some active help systems provide visual cues when they have a suggestion to make (for example, an icon may be highlighted) - the user has the option of taking the suggestion without having to abandon or interrupt his work.

How help is made effective:

Like interfaces, help screens/documentation should be designed taking into account the capabilities and task requirements of the user. Whatever the technology used, principles for writing and presenting it effectively are the same: use clear, familiar language, avoiding jargon as much as possible; terminology should be consistent between paper manuals/tutorials and on-line support material; help systems should tell the user how to use the system rather than simply describing it and not make assumptions about what the user knows. Documentation, which fully describes the system's functionality as well as instructing how to use it, should present both instructional and descriptive information clearly and accessibly.

Physical layout of documentation affects usability, e.g. blocks of text are difficult to read on screen. It can be broken into clear logical sections, or organized as a hypertext. Information can be arranged hierarchically. with each layer in the hierarchy providing increasing detail. Indexes can be used to show available topics, and can be organized to reflect the functional relationships between the subjects as well as their alphabetic ordering. Consistency of format also important, so that different types of information, e.g. definitions, examples, instructions, are recognizable.

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