Top 3 success factors in online help systems

Service speed as well as content’s structure and spacing are the top 3 factors that determine whether your online help system is successful. That’s the gist when I apply 7 of Cameron Chapman’s “10 Usability Tips Based on Research Studies” to online documentation.

Cameron’s post of September 15 looks at the numbers behind the usability of web sites and, as she writes, “some might surprise you and change your outlook on your current design processes”. And they underscore the importance of offering documentation that’s quick to find, understand and apply.

Speed

Speed is essential for online help success in two ways.

Write help content so it is fast and easy to skim and understand. Cameron mentions two studies by Jakob Nielsen:

  1. Users read only about 28% of the text on a web site, and the ratio decreases with the amount of text.
  2. Users follow an F-shaped pattern when skimming web sites. They start reading at the top left corner (in cultures which read left to right, top to bottom), skim key words along the line and move down the lines in that pattern.

To optimize your online help for such behavior, you can:

  • Use headings, bullet lists and parallelism to ensure that users read the “right” 28% of the text. These are the parts which orient readers and guide them to the solution of their question, and then the solution itself (and hopefully they read more than 28% of that page…)
  • Front-load your headings, list entries and paragraphs so readers get the gist from the beginning.  This quickly guides your readers and helps them in their F-shaped survey of your contents.

Power your server so  it is fast to load and display the online help. Cameron refers to a study for the Bing search engine which shows significant decreases in clicks and user satisfaction once load times exceed two seconds. I assume that online help servers meet with similar impatience: Just like a search engine, they are intermediary services which users consult when they really want to do something else.

So measure and ensure that your online help web server can offer users short loading times. This is especially crucial in multi-step rendering processes of dynamic content which involve first a database and then on-the-fly rendering in HTML + CSS.

Space

The spatial design of information is the second essential factor in the success of your online help.

Use white space to improve readability and reading comprehension. A study at Wichita State University found that users prefer text on web pages with margins and optimal leading (= vertical spacing between text lines). They also retain better what they have read.

“Don’t worry about ‘the fold’”, says Cameron. Contrary to popular belief, users do scroll and read below the ‘fold’ of the initially visible top part of a web page. Cameron points to studies by a web analytics company and design agency which conclude that there is no correlation between page length and the number of readers who scroll at least 90% to the bottom. Instead, users apparently scroll when they think it’s worth scrolling – which again emphasizes the content, its readability and usability.

Structure

The structure of topics and contents in your online help is the third essential factor.

Navigation beats search. Cameron cites two studies that found users prefer navigation and usually resort to search only after the navigation failed them. (I assume this differs for experienced users who know what they can expect from navigation and search respectively.)

So do your technical communications team and your users a favor and maintain a solid topic structure that writers and readers find worthwhile to use. A good topic structure is a map that orients users throughout the system and in context. By contrast, a search result merely shines a spotlight on the topic a reader may or may not need. In short: Don’t let your search bail out poor structure and bad navigation.

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2 Responses

  1. Just about one week ago I was presented the results of user tests for one of our help systems. I was really surprised that some of the users clearly stated that they liked the structure and that they expect the help to be structured like ours with categories, hierarchies etc.

    I was really happy about this because there are some UI designers that tend to say that you do not need categories, structure etc. if there’s a good search engine. And now I’m even more happy that there is a Nielsen study about this 😉

    I think a combination of good structure and good search engine is the right way. A good search helps the user to dive into the help. A good structure helps him to find his way if the search result was not exactly what he was looking for (from the user test: “I want to see all the other topics in this category”).

    • Thanks, Redakteuse, yes, I’ve found the same thing in user surveys: Users really notice and appreciate good structure in documentation.

      My experience as a writer and a user also confirms your second point: There’s a reason and a purpose for both, navigation and search. Now if we can only get UI designers and managers on board… 🙂

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