Chapter 12

Help and Documentation

12.1 Write a manual page for making a cup of coffee. Assume your user has no experience but will recognize a cup, a kettle, a spoon, etc. Swap your manual with a partner. Does your partner's manual give you sufficient instruction to make the cup of coffee? Discuss improvements with your partner and agree on a final version of the manual.


First you have to decide upon the level of granularity at which you are going to work. The aim of the exercise is to demonstrate that it is not as straightforward as it might seem to provide instructions even for a very familiar and well-understood task. Given this, it is most helpful to assume that the user knows very little. The example solution (Table Ex12.1) assumes that the user will recognize objects (perhaps they are labelled) and understands common actions and directions, but not the specific actions required here. Alternatively you could choose to assume that the user does know how to turn on a tap and open a jar.

N.B. The two options could be expanded further if required. Other alternatives could be included, such as getting water from another source.

Table Ex12.1 - Coffee making manual
Manual for making a cup of coffee
Required: an automatic electric kettle, a jar of instant coffee powder or granules, a mug, a teaspoon, a mains water tap (or an alternative source of water), a mains electricity supply, milk (optional), sugar (optional).
CAUTION: Electricity can be dangerous - avoid any contact between electric connections and water.
Boiling water can scald - take care.
To boil water: Ensure plug on kettle is not connected to mains electricity supply.
Remove lid from kettle.
Place kettle directly beneath spout of tap.
Turn tap handle anticlockwise to release water.
When water reaches mark labelled 'full' on kettle turn tap handle clockwise to close off water supply.
Replace kettle lid.
Move kettle to proximity of mains electricity supply.
Place kettle's plug into electricity socket.
Press button marked 'on' on top of kettle to switch kettle on.
When the water has boiled, the kettle will switch off automatically and the 'on' button will return to its original position with a click.
Remove kettle's plug from electricity socket.
To make coffee: Take jar of coffee and remove lid by turning anticlockwise.
Fill teaspoon with coffee.
Place contents of teaspoon in cup.
Replace lid on coffee jar and turn clockwise to tighten.
Pour boiling water from the kettle into the cup up to approximately 1/2 an inch from the top.
Add milk if required (to almost fill cup).
Add sugar if required.
Stir coffee mixture with spoon.
The coffee is now ready to drink.

The discussion should focus on the assumptions that are made. You should make a conscious decision about what assumptions to make, rather than making them by default. This should ensure that the assumptions that are made are appropriate to the particular user.

You could also contrast your answers here, based on the material in this chapter, with the 'making tea' manual in Chapter 7. How useful do you feel task analysis is in designing a manual?

12.2 Find a computer application that you have never used before. Attempt to learn to use it using only the on-line support. Is there enough information to allow you to use the application effectively? Is the information easy to find? What improvements (if any) would you suggest?


This is an investigative exercise for which there is no example solution. Possible systems to consider would be a word processor (for example, Word, WordPerfect, Word for Windows), a graphics package (MacDraw, Superpaint, CorelDraw) or a spreadsheet (Excel, Lotus). It may be helpful to have a list of tasks to learn to perform using the application. Include in this list basic tasks (creating a document, spreadsheet, etc.) and more complex ones (creating templates, etc.). The aim is to think about the provision of help from the point of view of the solitary user trying to figure things out alone. You should therefore make explicit any prior knowledge you use to help interpret the system (for example, experience of similar systems).

12.3 What knowledge is needed to build an adaptive help system? Which do you think is most difficult to provide and why?


It requires at least knowledge of the domain and knowledge of the user. It may also require knowledge of teaching strategies and tasks. Knowledge of the user is usually most difficult to provide, along with knowledge of the task. Even if the user can be monitored, interpreting the user's behaviour in anything other than coarse terms is difficult without access to his thought processes. However, this level of interpretation, and generalization, can be helpful nonetheless (for example, a record of what the user has already done successfully or how often he has used the application). Context can be deduced from the user's current activity. This too can be difficult to determine, however, unless it is a simple case where the tool in use indicates the activity being performed.

Domain knowledge in the general sense is probably the easiest to provide (although it is time consuming to do so). It is available within the system itself or from the designer.

12.4 Look at as many on-line support systems as you can. Which do you find most useful and why? Try to assess them using the requirements discussed in Section 12.2.


This is another open investigative assignment. The set of requirements in Section 12.2. should provide students with a structure for evaluating the systems. A scoring system can perhaps be worked out to aid comparison. Try to compare a general context-sensitive help system (for example, Balloon help) with an application-specific one. A hypertext-based help system would provide an interesting contrast, as would a manual-based help system (such as UNIX man) and a prompt-based one.

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