Technical communicators have long harbored a secret that we are reluctant to admit to outsiders: Users don’t like reading manuals. They do it only as a last resort. Even online help systems, which we originally hoped would be easier to use, have not met with great enthusiasm among users. It’s an all-too-common dilemma – there is a lot of information that could be explained, but users struggle along as best they can without it. Part of the problem has always been that users are reluctant to leave their work to seek information -- and rightly so. They have work to do and deadlines to meet. Even if your manual or online help contains a wealth of useful information, it takes them away from their work and interrupts their train of thought. If they do try to use it, the help window typically overlays the interface and adds its own set of navigation, resizing, and searching issues.
What does structured authoring mean to you? Structured authoring is a publishing workflow that lets you define and enforce consistent organization of information in documents, whether printed or online. What it means to me: defining a goal and assembling architected topics to help the reader achieve that goal.
Many teams are still laboring to transform poorly organized manuals into online help. But the biggest cllallege you face going from paper to online is not interface, but structure The better your structure, the easier your users will navigate.
This paper explores the process of designing and implementing a database-driven system of online documentation, and putting it live on the web for customers to use. Using real-life examples, it discusses practical considerations for balancing performance, scalability, and reliability.