Researching for Online Help Systems

Technical writers use a variety of tools in the research process of developing online help systems. Below are general guidelines in the research phase of online help system development.

Do Background Research
Research the product. This includes identifying its purpose, history, and its development and changes since inception. Collect any prior instructions, procedures, or specifications that may help in the development of an online help system. Refer to Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) as they are the leading experts on the product. In most cases they are engineers. Technical writers interview SMEs to get a thorough understanding of the product. SMEs may be in-house or consultants. If they are in-house, the writer can ask questions that the client cannot.

Analyze Your Audience
Figure out who the product is for. This can be done through surveys, focus groups, site visits, or user support groups. If possible, observe others using the product and note their experiences, particularly mistakes made and the frequency in which these mistakes occur. Observations will help a technical writer anticipate situations or problems the user may experience, which will help in the development of "scenarios" during the "Perform a User Analysis."

Perform a User Analysis
An important step in the research process is to perform an analysis of a product's users. This includes developing "scenarios," which will help identify the spectrum of users that could potentially utilize the online help system, which will help in the design and development process. Like SMEs, understanding the user's point-of-view will provide insight that the developer may not have.

Collect Visuals
If possible, collect graphics that can help illustrate the steps that will be described in the online help system.


Johnson-Sheehan. Technical Communication Today. 4th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012. Print.

"Subject Matter Experts and Technical Documentation," February 10, 2012 Posted in Blog <>

Weber, Jean Hollis. Is the Help Helpful? How to create online help that meets your users' needs. Hentzenwerke Publishing, 2004.

Original Author:
Contributors: Sandra Ramirez, Luis Regalado
Editors: Sandra Ramirez, Luis Regalado, Mario Garcia, Christine Hobbs, Larita Clow