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© Ugur Akinci
WebWorks has just published a seminal white paper about the characteristics of next-generation online help systems.
In this new era of socially networked (Twitter, Facebook) users who want everything on the go (iPad and “smart phones”) and insist on becoming a part of the “conversation,” the old-fashioned help files generated by HATs (Help Authoring Tools) are nowhere adequate.
The old system is closed, private, proprietary, top-down. The author creates the help file with the help of SMEs (Subject Matter Experts), usually by using a book metaphor so that the help file consists of chapters with pages even though page number is not used.
Once created, the help file is “hooked up” through API to the application itself and posted online. The access is through the application and there is no way the reader can challenge or contribute to the content of the file other than by sending an email or picking up the phone and trying to reach the author. Totally so 20th century.
But in 2011 “end users” do not see themselves at the “end” of anything. This new empowered consuming public do not see themselves at the “end” of a conveyor belt that carries “information” from the “experts” to the “layperson.” This is an age where every long-tail search term can have a vibrant community built around it thanks to Twitter, Facebook, and other networking platforms.
The total amount of relevant expertise out there is astronomically greater than what the experts of any corporation can muster. Thus a help system that does not tap into that collective expertise and does not allow the readers contribute back to and change the very help system that they are using is a system that becomes user-unfriendly very fast.
Many corporations still choose to operate with the terms of a long-gone century. Forget about incorporating social networking features into their help systems, such tools are not even allowed behind the corporate firewalls since YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook are still considered “entertainment” and “diversion” in many companies. Yet the momentum favors the eventual incorporation of such tools into Fortune 500 environments. At some point that will be reflected in a new type of topic-based and socially-networked help file format as well.
I’m aware that Adobe Air has introduced some features that allow incorporating reader comments back into a RoboHelp project but overall I think help systems are “wide open to improvement,” to put it diplomatically.
This report by WebWorks performs an important heads-up function by forcing us to confront this burning issue that has become too obvious to ignore.
You can ask for a copy of this brief but thought-provoking report by writing to Christopher Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org. Recommended.