Bulletin, June/July 2006
Toward an Enriched (and Revitalized) Sense of Help: Summary of an ASIS&T 2005 Panel Session
by Stephanie W. Haas, Laurie Brown, Sheila Denn, David Locke and Ben Shneiderman
Stephanie W. Haas, University of North Carolina, stephani<at>ils.edu.com
Brown, Social Security Administration, Office of Policy, laurie.brown<at>ssa.gov
O. Denn, University of North Carolina, denn<at>ils.unc.edu
Locke, Wordsmith LLC, david<at>wordsmith.net
Shneiderman, University of Maryland, College Park, ben<at>cs.umd.edu>
January 2005, the NSF-sponsored GovStat project (http://ils.unc.edu/govstat,
Gary Marchionini, PI) sponsored a symposium on help. The goal of the symposium
was to discuss what project members, federal agency colleagues and others had
learned about the problems with existing help facilities for large public-access
websites and to start forming a new vision of what help could and should be. We
agreed that we must rejuvenate interest in help and develop a research agenda to
address the gaps in our understanding. At the 2005 ASIS&T meeting in
opened the panel session by asking the audience who among them had clicked on a
“help” button or link during the last week. Of the 30 or 40 who raised their
hands, only two responded that they had found what they needed. This set the
stage for the panelists’ perspectives: what is the problem, and what can the
ASIS&T community do to solve it?
The Panelists’ Perspectives
Panelists were asked to talk about challenges involved in providing good
help, as well as success stories and opportunities for the future.
Locke, a consultant in online information systems at WordSmith, LLC, who was
unfortunately unable to attend the conference, contributed a framework for
designing help that includes three critical components: users; information
types; and signaling, affordances and access. Stephanie Haas presented an
overview of his ideas on “Functional Help Design Criteria.”
In Locke’s view help is a collection of answers, either to questions users have asked in the past or to questions we anticipate they might have now or in the future. Before we can prepare the answers, we need to know who our users are and what brings them to help. We already know that users do not come readily or happily to help, and quick access to the information they seek is required to make help functional. Fundamental divisions of the answer collection may start with the distinction between definitions and procedures that relate to the software interface and those that relate to the content the interface presents.
if we view an answer as a topic – information that is relevant to the user’s
question (as well as similar questions)? For the content provider, an answer is
then a collection of discrete units of information that have been gathered and
organized to address this particular topic. Different topics, or answers, are
created when units are joined in different combinations. As defined by the IEEE
Learning Technology Standards Committee in Learning
Object Metadata (LOM) Final Draft Standard IEEE 1484.12.1-2002, learning
objects are a model for these information units. Learning objects are defined
there as “any entity, digital or non-digital, which can be used, re-used or
referenced during technology supported learning.”
addition to the answers or topics, we also need to develop clearer signaling
methods that will help users see what kind of information is available and how
to get to it quickly. Absent these signaling conventions, users spend
frustrating first-contact moments trying to figure out how to use help and what
they will find before they can discover the help content itself. Often, current
help systems seem to layer one potentially frustrating information system on top
of an already frustrating one.
framework suggests several strands of research.
What are cost-efficient ways of learning
about users and their questions? Will the same methods work for the universe of
Web users and a homogeneous set of users in a constrained environment?
Going beyond the interface/content
division, should organizational structures to support browsing and searching for
help topics differ from structures for other kinds of content?
What do we gain or lose by viewing the
design of help as a problem of defining the basic information unit structure,
identifying units that are relevant to particular questions and combining them
into coherent topics?
How can we accelerate establishment of
conventions for signaling access and navigation of help?
Ben Shneiderman, professor
of computer science and founding director (1983-2000) of the Human-Computer
Interaction Lab at the
interface designs enable first-time and novice users to begin with a limited set
of features at the first layer. They can remain at the first layer, then move up
to higher layers when needed or when they have time to learn further features.
While there are interesting design problems in how to define the layers
(consider, for example, layering by function or by application or task), this is
a very promising strategy that needs further exploration and testing. Such
layered designs have been enormously successful in video games, and early
examples suggest that they can have high payoffs for advanced desktop, Web and
mobile device applications (more at: www.cs.umd.edu/local-cgi-bin/hcil/sr.pl?number=HCIL-2003-33).
approaches illustrate two basic principles in designing help. First, the user
must have control, ranging from starting, stopping and replaying to choosing the
specific topic of the help presentation. Second, procedural help can be
presented in small, discrete units that highlight specific topics or functions.
The user must be able to focus on important features or ideas: an
undifferentiated dump of information is overwhelming at best and an intimidating
waste of time at worst.
Denn, a doctoral candidate at the
brief history of research into help reveals that most research thus far has been
in the area of interface help, defined
as support for the use of the features included in a particular piece of
software. We can draw a distinction between this kind of help and content
help, defined as support for the use of the content and concepts contained
within an information system. This distinction is important now because of the
explosion of content on the Web, with which users interact using a fairly
constrained set of interface features. This necessarily broadens the scope of
what help should be to include features of the content as well as the interface.
While focusing on exploring the idea of content help and setting out a proposed
research agenda in content help, it must be acknowledged that the distinction is
a somewhat artificial one, and that in the end interface help and content help
are necessarily intertwined.
help can include support for general concepts within the domain of the
information system as well as support for particular instances of those
concepts. This support can include definitions of concepts, guidelines for usage
and manipulation of concepts, and so forth. Most examples of good content help
in the current environment occur outside the online information system and are
human-mediated, such as interactions with reference librarians or with help
lines provided by the manufacturers of consumer goods, such as home appliances.
Perhaps the best example of good online content help is that provided by income
tax software such as TurboTax (www.turbotax.com), where context-sensitive help
is provided for individual items as users proceed through preparing their tax
forms. Note that this is a very tightly constrained domain with a very highly
specified task, where the users’ needs, goals and potential problems are
relatively homogeneous and predictable. One open question is whether effective
content help can scale to more broadly conceived information systems where user
tasks cannot be predicted.
concept related to help that should inform our research is that of usability.
It is widely recognized that providing support for the use of interface features
within a software application is essential to rendering that software usable. So
the question becomes: How do we provide support for information use as an
essential piece of information usability? What does it mean for information to
research agenda for content help must guide us to understand the complex
interactions between user and task characteristics, between content and
interface characteristics, and amongst all four of these kinds of
characteristics to make up information use. One of the first challenges we must
face is in research design. How do we design studies to explore these
interactions? What kinds of metrics can we use to measure them? Once we have
designed and undertaken such studies, how can the results be applied to the
design of integrated interface and content help? There is a need for the
human-computer interaction and information use communities to come together to
resolve some of the methodological issues and move the field of help forward.
Brown, webmaster for the Social Security Administration's (SSA's) Office of
Policy discussed the challenges and opportunities presented by the Web to
federal statistical agencies and the potential of rich Internet applications in
providing better online help to users.
Office of Policy is responsible for conducting policy research and, as home to
one of the principal federal statistical agencies (the Office of Research,
Evaluation and Statistics or ORES), is also responsible for the dissemination of
data and statistics about the programs SSA administers. That latter task
includes publishing a series of statistical compilations that include about 1000
data tables per year. The Office of Policy has a well-established print
publication program, as do most federal statistical agencies. However, the
advent of the Web presented new opportunities and challenges.
Web has allowed the federal statistical agencies to reach a wider audience in
ways they weren't able to before. While such unfettered access to information is
of benefit to many, it also increases the possibility of misinterpretation by
those not trained in statistics or familiar with specific federal agencies or
programs. In addition, the nonsequential nature of the Web means that the
traditional structure of statistical publications – perhaps a brief
introduction at the front, a glossary at the back and lots of tables – isn't
appropriate anymore. Better ways are needed to help users find what they are
looking for and to understand what they find.
order to create an enriched Web experience for users, help models must be backed
by an institutional commitment to improving the user experience and the
technology to do so. The development of stovepipes within and between agencies
has led to several issues that are highlighted when information is collectively
presented on the Web:
- Data harmony – different numbers being reported for
the same concept.
- Definitions – the same term being used for different
- Labeling – different terms being used for the same
effective help can be provided for users, agencies must harmonize their data –
identifying a single, authoritative source for each concept – and fully
develop accompanying metadata.
current HTML page-based model used on the Web also presents challenges when
trying to provide help to users. That model is not conducive to helping users
stay focused on their task while seeking more information or providing that
information in context. Constant server calls and page refreshes distract users
from their tasks. In addition, the common ways of delivering help each pose
challenges for users:
- New page – users completely lose the context of
- New window – focus shifts from user's task and new
window may obscure relevant parts of original window.
- Frames – take up valuable screen real estate whether
or not help is needed at that moment.
HTML's limited set of attributes sometimes puts accessibility and usability at
odds. For example, the "alt" attribute of an image tag may be used to
provide equivalent text for a blind user's screen reader or a tool tip for a
sighted user's graphical browsers, but it can't do both.
technologies, such as rich Internet applications (RIAs), address many of the
limitations associated with static HTML and offer a lot of potential in
providing better help to users. RIAs provide richer user interfaces, allow
greater interaction with applications and provide immediate feedback to users
without the need for constant calls back to the server and frequent page
refreshes. Components within an RIA allow for the progressive disclosure of
information and smooth transitions between application states so users don't
lose the context or focus of their task. The use of XML with RIAs would allow
for the customization of help; instead of static glossary definitions, users
could be presented with more customized information.
The Audience Joins In
It was clear from the questions and comments made by those attending the
session that 1) there is a lot of pent-up frustration about the current state of
help, 2) examples of good help exist and 3) it is high time that the various
interested parties (researchers, developers, content providers and others) focus
on improving help. Participants related their own experiences, as well as those
involving family, friends and co-workers. One thing seems clear: everyone needs
help with something at some time, regardless of their level of expertise.
Understanding users and their needs is thus a crucial part of the research
and remove barriers. The
name help is itself problematic, with
connotations of insufficiency and failure rather than learning. Users need
sufficient motivation to seek help – the need to complete a task or learn
information and the belief that they can find what they need without wasting a
lot of time and effort. There was agreement that we need to provide good cues or
signals as to what help is available. Cues need to be appropriately prominent
and labeled, and as mentioned above, establishing conventions could be useful.
vs. content. Audience members seemed to
agree with the idea that we need different approaches for procedural (task) help
and content help. In the abstract, the distinction seems intuitive; in practice,
it will not be as clear.
can view tasks as ranging from the highly structured (with few options or
choices needed) to the more creative and free-form. At the structured end, good
design can obviate the need for much help. A richly scaffolded environment may
essentially eliminate the need for help as a separate feature by making the
information the user needs to use and understand the interface and content an
integral part of the system – a world where no “help” is needed. At the
other end, good design is still essential to reduce the need for help, but
guidance (support) in making choices and understanding options is still needed.
Layering, Show-me! and other means of providing suggestions and examples are
help is harder. Just-in-time, just-enough help provides enough background or
explanatory information for the user to complete the task at hand. Long-term
learning is not the immediate goal, although it may be a happy side effect. In
other situations, a user may want to put in a greater investment of time and
effort for long-term learning, in which case the initial task may just be a
point of departure. Without the structure of a predictable task (and therefore
more predictable questions or information needs), we must look to other sources
of help. Sources
for online help include content providers, third-party providers and community
providers (lists, blogs, external websites). Content providers are an
authoritative source for help on their own content, but providing help may not
be a high-priority activity. Can they fold the creation of help resources into
the content production process? A cooperative model wherein information units or
objects are created by content providers and a third party provides the
structure to weave them into answers is attractive, but may not be acceptable to
all. Content providers (such as federal statistical agencies) are naturally
reluctant to blur the boundaries between the information they provide and stand
behind and the related information provided by others. The potentially unknown
quality of information contributed by community providers must be balanced
against convenient access, shared experiences (frustrations as well as
successes) and perhaps a sense that someone is really listening.
Guidance for the future. Panelists and members of the audience cited several examples of websites or tools that are designed well enough to virtually eliminate the need for help, as well as those that incorporate useful and usable help facilities. As mentioned above, the online help provided in TurboTax is well integrated with the user’s task. The new natural gas page at the Energy Information Administration (www.eia.doe.gov/oil_gas/natural_gas/info_glance/natural_gas.html) provides easy access to definitions and source information for their statistical data, although it still requires the user to open a separate page to access this information. Further, the drop-down lists and radio buttons suggest alternative ways of viewing the information that might not have occurred to the user and might even provide better answers to his or her question. Another example is the Genworth Financial Retirement Income Gap Calculator (www.gefinancialassurance.net/calculators/incomeGap.mxml),
provides definitions of terms and clear transitions from one stage of the
user’s task to another.
From these examples, we can develop guidelines for good practice and an
understanding of what approaches are suitable in various information
environments. But good examples alone are not sufficient. We also need to seek
out relevant learning, usability and design theories for guidance. Scaffolding,
distributed cognition, enriched cognitive environments and zone of proximal
development provide some guidance.
The session emphasized that the single word help
encompasses a vast array of support tools and information. On one extreme, a
well designed tool for a straightforward, well-specified task could eliminate
the need for any kind of procedural or content help. Users would be guided from
step to step without being given the opportunity to go astray or the need to
exit the task environment to learn more. Another perspective might provide small
discrete nuggets of information (well-labeled and indexed) from which the user
may consult a single brief definition or string several together to create a
tutorial. A third could embody active cooperation between the user and the
information environment, where every element of the interface offers suggestions
and opportunities for learning and exploration.
goal is to harness some of the energy, interest and, yes, frustration that was
expressed during this session. It is high time we take a new look at help and
what it could and should be. ASIS&T members are well-suited to take the
would like to express our thanks to those who attended the session for their
This work was supported by NSF Grant EIA 0131824.
Articles in this Issue
Toward an Enriched (and Revitalized) Sense of Help: Summary of an ASIS&T 2005 Panel Session