Designing Online Help Systems

When designing an online help there are seven golden rules to help guide one in the process. These rules are:
  1. Don't force users to move between topics to solve a problem.
  2. Only index the main theme of each Help topic.
  3. Don't require users to make a conscious decision to access Help.
  4. Only include images when they add value.
  5. Write topics that answer users' questions.
  6. Don't be a slave to consistency - be guided by the needs of the user.
  7. Don't be tempted to provide too much information.

Remember, a help system is designed to answer the users questions.

Using WikiSpaces as on Online Help System

A wiki is essentially a collaboration platform. Your online documents become a place where everyone goes to find information, share their own tips with others, and pick up the latest updates. Most help authoring tools provide the following functions:
  • Fully customizable table of contents, where you can put topics in the order you want, omit topics or make a single topic appear more than once.
  • Integrated keyword index.
  • Integrated glossary.
  • Navigational tools to make topic browsing easier, such as the "browse sequences" provided by RoboHelp.
  • Topic linkage tools, such as the "next topic", "previous topic" and "related topics" tools which are built into some help authoring tools.
  • Generation of HTML help (.chm) and WinHelp output files.
  • Workflow support (draft, review, publish).
  • Integration with a source control tool, or RoboHelp’s check-in check-out manager.
  • Automatic generation of topic IDs, which you can hand over to a developer for plugging into the code to generate context-sensitive help links.
  • Sophisticated topic templates.

The following is what a wiki provides, in terms of usefulness for online help:
  • A wiki page is a URL — so you can link to the page directly from your application screen.
  • Wiki pages are continuously being updated and enhanced by technical writers, support staff and even customers who have useful tips to share. So when someone clicks the help link, they get the most up-to-the minute information possible.
  • Wikis allow you to embed multimedia such as images and flash movies.
  • Generate PDF, HTML and XML versions of your wiki pages.
  • A good wiki has a good search engine.
  • Some wikis provide version control — all changes are tracked, and you can see who made each change or even revert to a previous version of a page.
  • A wiki often provides tools for runtime integration with other software — many wikis allow you to install plugins or add-ons which display information directly from another platform.
  • Some wikis allow blogging as part of the wiki platform. So your documentation page can embed a list of the latest blog posts related to the topic of the page. The blog posts will always be the most recent as at the time the user views the wiki page.

Although wiki pages may not be as robust as a dedicated online help systems such as RoboHelp, it does offer some unique options.

WordPress is primarily a blog and CMS software. WordPress offers templates which contain pre-configured pages, navigation, language and other features which can be used to create an online help. If you like aspects of a wiki page, but want to use WordPress, you can purchase the WordPress Wiki Theme software from WordPress.

Organizing Online Help

Online help is logically organized so that topics, details and links can be easily found and understood by the user. Since there is a large amount of information in a help system, designers need a way to organize the information so that automated tools can handle the information. One form of organization is to create a conceptual structure of topics, and group related topics in a branch of a hierarchy. The developer will soon find that this organization will be helpful to the whole development of the online help system. The following is a list of tips for organizing online help:
  • Organize help information so that it can be browsed easily.
  • Organize topics hierarchically according to conceptual structure of topics.
  • Organize the content in a section in a logical order so that the user can grasp the idea by skimming through the section.

The following refers not to the global organization of online information but to the organization of content within a help web page. The content should be divided into several sections, such as program description, solution, example and reference.
  • Link related sections together for cross reference.
  • Although help information should be modular and self contained, there are some situations where users may want information about related topics. Therefore, it is convenient for users to jump directly from one section to related sections by following links

When you write your online help, try to think in terms of types of information: overview, procedure and reference information. If you cover one type of information in a topic, this helps keep your topics short, skimmable, and easier to understand in an online delivery system. An overview contains narrative information and graphics about one functional area or a group of commands. Procedural information and references to the user interface are described sparingly in this type of topic and only when absolutely necessary. The procedure contains information about how to do a certain operation in the software. These topics are usually no more than eight steps, although exceptions do exist. Command topics define each command in the software with a detailed description and links to related dialog boxes, ribbons, etc. Command topics should also discuss how to use the command, when it is available, and what sorts of options are available when using the command. Reference information lists gadgets with a detailed description of what each gadget does. Reference information should cover how to use the gadget, when to use with the gadget, why the user would want to use it, and how using it might affect other options.

Online Help Linking Strategy

Hyperlinks are a "one click" action users can take to find further information within a topic. The danger of hyperlinks is that they can distract the user from the original question if the original link leads to even more links. This can be avoided by naming the next set of information as a sub-topic. Some ways to mitigate the confusion that can result from using hyperlinks are:
  • Creating a "back" navigation.
  • Showing the user where they are in relation to the original topic by using a side pane or window.
  • Create a history dialog.

Content Management System
Hyper Text Markup Language
Portable Document Format
Uniform Resource Locator
Extensible Markup Language


"Organizing your online help". Epic Trends. Web. 3 Sep. 2012. <>

Au, Tsz-Chiu. "Guidelines of Online Help Design, E-mail Help Methods and Online Customer Service for Website Developers". Universal Usability in Practice. Department of Computer Science University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742. 15 Apr 2000. Web. 3 Sep. 2012.<>

Feathers, F. "Using a wiki for online help". 15 May. Web. 03 Sep. 2012.>

Ellison, Matthew. Seven golden rules of online Help design. Web. Sept. 5, 2012.


Original Author: Linda Page
Contributors: Inez Funchess
Editors: Wendy Anderson, Mario Garcia, Tammy Fitzpatrick