When redundancy is good: Online help navigation

Redundant navigation can help users find what they’re looking for.

Redundancy in documentation is usually bad: When you have the same content (in different words) in two places, you pay twice for localization – yet you probably only remember to update one of the items. So you risk inconsistencies, extra costs and general havoc.

Not so when it comes to navigation! Redundant navigation can offer your users different paths to get to the one place where they find what they need. The reason this works is because users want to do different things at different times in your help system. (See my earlier post “Top 10 things that users want to do in a help system“.)

Tom Johnson’s recent post got me thinking about this when he asked for “Examples of Help Systems that Provide Users with Multiple Entry Points?” His approach is a bit different, however, from what I have in mind. Tom thinks about “adding metadata to help topics so you can sort them into different arrangements for different audiences”.

My idea is to offer a few additional entry pages with layers of pointers to get users to the appropriate part of the help system quickly. Only some of the options require tags on topics.

Here’s a design I once did for the rather comprehensive online help navigation of an asset management system, we’re talking several thousand topics. (Click on the image for a larger version.)

Example for redundant navigation in complex online help system

The idea is that different personalities of users come to the help with different kinds of questions:

  • Some users focus on their roles and approach the system from that angle, whether they work in front, middle or back office of a bank or asset management company.
  • Other users focus on the task they need to execute – which in an asset management system can be boiled down to five main types of tasks.
  • And some users expect to find certain forms of documentation, such as release notes, tutorials, manuals.

Depending on your choice, you would get through 1 or 2 more selection screens until you wind up at a specific help topic. And you could take different paths to get to the same topic.

For example, if you wanted to set up a fund, you would need to get to the topic “Set up a fund definition”. Of course, you wouldn’t know that. But you could get there in various ways.

For example like this:

  1. I’m working in: Back Office
  2.  > Fund accounting
  3.  > I need to set up fund accounting
  4.  > Set up a fund definition

Or like this:

  1. I want to: Set up static data
  2.  > For a fund
  3.  > Set up a fund definition

Or like this:

  1. Show me: Tutorials
  2.  > How to set up SimCorp Dimension
  3.  > Fund accounting
  4.  > Set up a fund definition

So the idea is to anticipate some of the most common questions and approaches users have to the system and to make the right entry points easy to find. This does not to offer so many paths through the forest of topics as to confuse users, but only signposts to topics we expect every user will hit (as long he is using a particular module at all.

Your turn

Could you, would you use such a help portal that offered different paths or would you bypass it in favor of the tabel of contents on the left and the search? Do you know other help systems that use such a structure? Please leave a comment.

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5 Responses

  1. Kai

    Multiple entries to same topic in an online help are unavoidable in some cases. While working on a CRM documentation, we realised that a topic with title *Create New Invoice for Specific Client* was listed twice in TOC, under *Manage Invoices* and in *Manage Clients*.

    As you rightly said, the objective is to enable easy access to help topics for all kinds of users, for all kinds of information that they seek.

    BR

    • Thanks, Vinish, for your comment. It’s an apt reminder to make sure that, if at ll possible, topics should have unique names and any topic should only be described once!

  2. I think the example works because there are only three columns. If there were more, the user might get lost. So in this case the little bit of redundancy and hierarchy helps focus the user; if it were any more complex, the user might give up and just type in a search term.

    • Very good point, Dave! If you had 7 or 12 parallel streams, that would be confusing more than anything else!

      I would argue that’s why it’s important to have only few, but fundamentally different parellel entries, such as the “I am…”, “I want to do…” and “I’m looking for…”.

      And of course, redundant navigation can supplement a good search functionality, not replace it…

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