Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Future of the Online Help Interface?

Thanks to Trevor W. for raising an interesting question after I presented a Dec. 11 webinar for #MadCap on the design challenges in converting traditional online help to mobile format…
The question:

With newer, touch-screen optimized operating systems like Windows 8 (and Apple’s Mountain Lion to some extent), and the merging of form factors--laptops and tablets (like MS Surface) --do you see a move away from more traditional online help layouts and towards a mobile-style layout for all platforms, including desktops? By mobile-style, I mean something that looks like your *** app with icons, rather than a stock mobile output…
My initial answer:

The short and honest answer is that I don't know.
The more useful answer is that our interface designs are evolving based on a number of factors including user age, expectations, screen size, and nature of the material and its application. Some specifics:

- User age - The de facto attitude is that the younger the user, the more comfortable they are with online material presented in a smartphone style - e.g. icons, cool colors, etc. It's not a bad way to think. Just as we went from the bland, gray look of the old HTML Help (CHM) output to the more tailorable browser-based WebHelp, and now HTML5, we're now going to the still more colorful smartphone style. My concern in this trend, however, is the risk of trying to force all material to fit into that style, as I said repeatedly during the webinar. I'm not sure that a guide to concrete mix standards would be appropriate in the same style as Angry Birds, but I expect to see someone try it.

- Expectations - Similar to my previous point but with the added points that we're providing less information as we expect users to be more up on things related to what we're documenting. For example, in the '90s, I wrote a lot of PC user guides and always included sections on the disk drives, how to use a mouse, etc. We don't do that anymore because we expect users to know those things. Companies are also reducing the amount of background material in their doc on the grounds that "if you don't know what a receivable is, you shouldn't be using our accounting software at all". That shortening of content makes sense but can be taken too far.
- Screen size - There's a lot as to what you can do with such a tiny screen. The best thing, in my opinion, would be some sort of gesture or head-movement navigation coupled with a predictive agent, but the attempts to date - BOB and Clippy - haven't been very successful.

- Nature and application of the material - An online help system for an accounting software package calls for different help than does Fruit Ninja, obviously, but the question is whether we make each help system look consistent with its application or with the platform on which the application runs.
I don’t know where I’ll go with this response but I’m interested in people’s thoughts…