Many believe that written user guides are doomed to extinction. Although their usage has diminished slightly, they are not clean gone yet. They are still with us—serving their particular audience and making us wonder what is the best approach to structuring them.
With the rise in the popularity of online documentation, many have ditched linearity and adopted a topic-based approach to writing—faster, more convenient, and definitely more efficient from the user perspective; absolutely challenging from the author perspective. But is such an approach still any good for structuring user guides which, unlike help systems, don’t provide immediate assistance to the user, differ in the very context of use, and are designed with a clear intention—to teach and guide?
Should your user guide read like a book?
Telling users a story is always nice. And telling users a story which is meaningful, well structured, and matches their expectations is far better. But is it the case with the user guide? Should we regard it as a story with a clear structure—engaging beginning, compelling body, and an exciting ending? Or rather as a compilation of useful-in-a-certain-case-only topics?
On the one hand, going from one point to the other in a chronological sequence seems absolutely indispensable for our users’ understanding. However, the major fear here is that users may not have time to spare and actually read our story from cover to cover. Besides, what about those tough moments when they just seek a hand out?
Your guesses might be right—assuming that users are ignorant of the business flow is more than likely erroneous. Thus, let’s face it—they turn to documentation when in need and expect a quick solution to their problem. Will they patiently go through nine circles of hell (several previous chapters of a linear user guide, I mean) until reaching their so much desired goal? Hardly possible since all the previous chapters are meaningless for them and don’t match their expectations.
Linearity or topic-based authoring?
As a rule, the choice between linearity and topic-based approach is dictated by the very type, medium, general purpose of the deliverable, as well as the usability of its architecture. In certain cases, like in flow-based user guide, just topic-based structuring won’t be enough. So, let’s take a glance at what might influence the approach to structuring our user guide.
Considering different types of guides, we might notice that many of them are linear—logically structured with each new procedure preconditioning the following one. Such a structure reads like a book and is easy to follow. What is more, it really gives users the entire picture of what they are to accomplish and which results they may achieve at the end of their journey.
However, to reach the final goal, one needs to spare a lot of time just to complete a single journey. Besides, with each new attempt to complete the task, this experience will repeat.
Unlike help systems that are responsive, assist a user in the real-time environment, and may offer just-in-time help, the very purpose of the user guide is quite different—to teach and guide along the whole user journey. Thus, linearity offering a step-by-step guidance might well serve this purpose.
But in those cases when user guides are created with the topic-based approach in mind, the structure is more explicit. Modular approach to grouping the topics ensures that every topic is discrete and able to stand alone. This is actually one of the main principles of topic-based authoring—every topic should be topic one. Besides, the content provided tends to be clearer and more concise—minimalist, in other words. As such, our guide also changes its initial purpose—from teaching to aiding.
Most of the written user guides are destined to become PDFs which are eventually leafed through on the screen or, in rare cases, printed. So, topic–based structuring might be quite confusing and rather inconvenient for such a medium, while a step-by-step guideline with proper navigation and references will ensure quick help without the need to dig into the entire content.
But what if the need arises to change the medium and turn your written guide into the online help or a section in a knowledge base? Or even more, enhance it with context sensitivity or a chatbot? Hmm… gets really puzzling for the very author.
Just remember, technical content is dynamic and should always allow for a flexible switch between different types of media. Still asking how to achieve such a flexibility? Simply, by applying a topic-based approach you obtain better control of your deliverable and, thus, can flexibly manage the content by easily reusing it in different types of deliverables for different media.
Still, for guides, you can combine both approaches to provide the users with two options: either read linearly to learn the whole workflow from start to finish; or jump right into the needed topic (part of the workflow) where they have encountered a difficulty.
Still considering a linear approach but not sure if it will really work? In this case, you should determine the acceptable level of usability for your deliverable.
Guide architecture usability depends on a number of factors, the type of target audience and the degree of the system complexity being the crucial ones. Linearity might be a good choice if we are targeting our content at the users who are going through their first experience with the system and are not quite familiar with its logic. But what’s to be done once they all get familiar with the workflow?
Empathize with the users. In the system based on complex logic with the design less than intuitive, it might be crucial for the users to follow logically structured discrete topics that will help them get the hang of the flow on the one hand, and quickly achieve their final goal on the other.
Is a perfect blend possible?
By analyzing certain patterns of user behavior through empathizing, we may well understand our user needs, which will definitely help us find a golden mean between these two approaches and ensure successful experience of our users.
Following the sequential alteration of topics grouped thematically under one heading will greatly improve user experience with our guide as well as extend the user possibilities with the system.
However, when choosing between two extremes, the topic-based approach is a definite winner. It allows for greater flexibility, better control of the content, and substantially reduces the maintenance effort.
Would you disagree? 🙂