Online Help and Performance Support

By Stephanie Oberle

Online help has become increasingly popular among companies due to the potential for saving expenses related to training. Many individuals make use of online help programs or systems because they are active in finding the information. Online help is easily accessible, instantaneous, informative, suggestive, and can reduce the cost of training. Online documentation "includes the use of the computer to communicate information that might otherwise appear on paper and the use of the computer to communicate information about the computer itself." (Horton, 1990)

Writing Online Help

Technical communicators should be involved in writing online help due to their proficiency in creating materials which are significant to lay persons. In a study of 20 systems, conducted by Fisher (1999), only 70% of those systems contained online help, with 29% of those help systems written by technical communicators. Programmers and developers have been writing online help even though they do not have the expertise. An online help system is more widely used and preferred by individuals if a technical communicator has written it. A nonprofessional writer uses technical jargon not understandable to lay persons, does not include adequate detail or complete steps, and uses out-of-date, inaccurate, or incomplete information in writing online help (Fisher, 1999).

Approaches to Online Help

Miller and McCandless (1999) found the following online help approaches beneficial to the individual.

  • Embedded help shows up in the form of a screen next to the problem and automatically gives the individual instructions to complete the task
  • Wizards are used to engage the individual in interactive help. The user performs a series of events and choices to complete their project.
  • The Office Assistant, from Microsoft Office, foresees the needs of the individual and allows a choice to be made if assistance is required to complete the task. An intelligent agent can be a valuable tool if it teaches the individual how to do their assignment.
  • Bubble help (Tool Tips) displays a bubble with instructions or information for the user when the mouse rolls over active fields or icons.
  • What's This? Help allows the individual to change the cursor to a question mark and find out relevant information about any object in the program.
  • Expanded help content allows individuals to view general information about a product or service. Detailed information, for instance troubleshooting, is available by clicking a button.

Typical Complaints About Online Help

Throughout the literature there has been quite a few complaints by individuals using online help. Listed below are some of the compiled complaints (Grayling, 1998; Smart, Whiting, & DeTienne 2001).

  • Difficulty navigating the help menu;
  • Terminology too technical;
  • Difficulty using search strategies (limitations);
  • Incomplete information;
  • Too many paths before getting to solution;
  • Difficulty using help and application window at the same time;
  • Too much information to digest.

With these complaints in mind, online help must be context-specific, easily available, obvious to invoke, useful, and non-intrusive (Smart, Whiting, & DeTienne 2001). The desired information displayed must be relevant to the particular question, concise, and short. Users prefer presentation only of relevant information in a compact space. The help must offer useful information. It must also stay behind the scenes until the individual asks for help. When balloons or pop-up menus appear with help, it distracts the individual.

These suggestions for development of an effective and relevant online help system can best be achieved by employing a technical writer or communicator in the development process. If the product is written well, designed well and meets the needs of the users, it will be accessed frequently ensuring that the worker has just-in-time training and solutions immediately. Empowering the workers with a quality tool is a solid investment in human resources.


Fisher, J. (1999). Technical communicators and online help: The developers' and users' perspective. Technical communication, 360 - 365.

Grayling, T. (1998, May). Fear and loathing of the help menu: A usability test of online help. Technical communication, 45, 168 - 179. Retrieved January 25, 2004, from the ProQuest database

Horton, W. (1990). Designing & writing online documentation. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Miller, B. & McCandless, P. (1999, April). Online help supports performance. Performance improvement, 32 - 35.

Smart, K., Whiting, E., & DeTienne, K. (2001, July). Assessing the need for printed and online documentation: A study of customer preference and use. Journal of business communication, 38, 285 - 314. Retrieved January 25, 2004, from the factiva database

Author Note


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