Help text: What it isn’t for

My life has been interesting lately: We’re implementing a new library catalogue which also means re-implementing most of the library web-site.  This has meant the need, in some cases, for new help text, and while I am not a technical writer, I have done some technical writing in the past, so I got the job (that, and I put my hand up for it since everyone is busy).

In preparation for writing the help text I needed to write, I reviewed a lot of other help text, and I found a pretty common mistake: Using help text to fix up  problems with an interface.

One of the help texts I reviewed was for the search history component of a search service.  This service automatically kept all the recent searches, and allowed users to save searches more permanently, and file these saved searches away in different folders for later recall.

The help text for this service explained to users what ‘this session’s queries’ and ‘saved queries’ were, and identified the non-standard icons used for moving searches between folders. Help text in this case is a band-aid for the mistakes made in system design: the word ‘searches’ should have been used in place of the word queries, and if the folder system could not be made drag-and-drop, the icons should probably have been replaced by words (or at least standard icons).  This would have dramatically cut down the need for help text, and more importantly (given that only a tiny minority of users read help text), improve the general usability of this feature.

Whiel the feature described above was a pretty clear example of using help text the wrong way, it was far from the only example I could draw on, and this is fairly disappointing. Help text is for systems that are genuinely complex, not for putting a band-aid over poor user interface design.  When was the last time you had to read the manual to do something simple?

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