Online Help Systems

By Scott Thompson

In a world where the diversity and complexity of jobs require individuals to accomplish increasingly complex tasks, innovative methods of assisting people in completing these tasks must be used. Online Help Systems consist of computer software designed to assist the user in completing tasks (Pratt 1998 1998). When planned and implemented well, these systems can greatly increase productivity, increase quality, and decrease costs associated with providing support to workers (Middleton 1999). When an online help system is well designed it will bring relevant information to users who need it and guide them as a human teacher would (Wen 2000).

Online help systems have grown since first developed by software companies in the early 1980s (Pratt 1998 1998). There are two general categories of online help systems static and dynamic. Static systems are those that do not change over time or based on situation. The most common type of static system is an information database known as a knowledgebase (Lane 2003). A knowledgebase is a collection of information organized in a way that a user is able to access it, similar to a dictionary or encyclopedia. A knowledgebase can be delivered on media such as a CD or can be server based accessed over an intranet or the internet. The advantage of a server-based system is that updates can be made continuously without disturbing the user. Dynamic systems are those that change over time or based on situation, in fact each time you use a dynamic system it may be different. The three most common types of dynamic systems are: Live Chat, Posts/Messages, and Real time cues. Live chat is a two-way dialog between the user and a helpdesk expert who guides the individual through their difficulty. A post or message board system is a place where users can post questions to be answered. The system can be designed so that experts answer these questions or can be opened up for anyone user to answer questions. This approach can utilize a message board or be conducted through email. Real time cues are systems that guide the user through a process each time the user attempts the task. This includes online forms that require a certain format or data that cannot be left blank. Another example is a pop up window that requires the user to confirm an intended action.

No matter what type of online help system you choose to use there are some basic principles that will make it a success. If a help system is not designed well it can lead to even greater frustration by the user. First, it is important to understand the type of person who uses online help systems. They are typically 'task-oriented' and have accessed the help system because they need assistance in accomplishing a task. In response, online help systems should be 'task-focused' by giving specific directions that result in a desired outcome (Pratt 1998). When designing an online help system there are two factors that are critical to success: Accuracy and Accessibility (Newman). Accessibility refers to the method that a person uses to access the information. This method must be easy and intuitive to the user. The challenge with this factor is that what is intuitive to one user may not be intuitive to another (Pratt 1998). Accuracy in the information and guidance establishes credibility in the system. If users do not feel that the system is credible they will not use the system no matter how easy it is to use.

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The implementation of an online help system must focus on two components, content and delivery. The primary barrier to the development of an online help system is that the developer must know computer programming or hire someone who does. In numerous examples of online help system failures, the computer programmer responsible for the content of the help system is not someone familiar with instructional design. This leads to a system that may not meet the needs of the users (Scafaria 2004). Mark Scafaria, experienced in large scale technology rollouts in major corporations and currently President of MOTC Software Inc., has four principles which lead to the success of any technology project: cost, quality, resource, and schedule. The online system delivery plan must have acceptable costs, have a high level of accessibility and accuracy, match the available resources available for deployment, and be implemented in a timely manner (Scafaria 2004).

Online help systems are powerful tools that allow the user immediate access to information. The successful utilization of these systems are determined by the quality of the information presented and the ability of the user to access it. There are many case studies of companies that implemented successful online help systems and found significant positive results including NASA and American Airlines.


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Middleton, M. (1999). The online help system: does it help or hinder information technology professionals who provide desktop support?. Masters Paper - University of North Carolina

Newman, B., & Riner, R. (). Designing accessible online help. Retrieved Feb 07, 2004, from

Pratt, J. (1998). Where is the instruction in online help systems. Technical Communication, 33-37.

Scafaria, Mark. Personal interview

Wen, Hui-Fang. "Empirical Studies of Online Help." University of Maryland. , College Park. 19 April 2000.

Author Note


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