Does Your Web Site Need Help?

How could your Web site need Help? You've got three-click-or-so navigation to most content. Your graphic design is professional. The QA group assures that every link is active and points to the right place. You've got simple and advanced search. And your Web server is integrated with back-end databases 24/7, providing and collecting information dynamically on dozens of Web pages. Well, all that could be true and yet you might still have a silent majority of frustrated Web visitors.

To illustrate, I recently changed health insurance providers. While waiting for my member card to arrive, I went to the company's site to print a temporary card. I hope I'm not sounding like Andy Rooney here, but after many frustrating clicks and searches yielding dozens of irrelevant results, I stumbled across a link named "View Instant Eligibility." I clicked and printed my temporary card. Intuitive? No! Common Internet experience? Increasingly.

Most sites have a FAQ section and (buried somewhere) a "Contact Us" link, as did this insurer's site, but FAQs usually only scratch the surface of site navigation (and were of no help to me here). As for contacting the insurer, the last thing I wanted was an auto-response to my email promising that they'd get right back to me, or an equally frustrating phone voice-prompt menu to nowhere. My need here was simple. Had I been trying to solve a complex problem, I'd have been completely out of luck.

Providing complex procedure demos on the Web begs for multimedia demonstrations, but developing Flash movies is time-consuming and expensive. So usually all you'll see is site-welcome Flash eye candy. Web development seems to suffer from both a team inbreeding blind to usability and a copycat mentality (see FAQs and "Contact Us").What's the solution? Increased usability may lie with the right brain of online Help and simple multimedia rather than left-sided FAQs and Web reports.

Recently Macromedia, known for its Web client and server products such as Dreamweaver, ColdFusion, and Flash, acquired eHelp Corporation, a company known especially for its online Help development systems, including RoboHelp. My first reaction was that this acquisition didn't make much sense because of the product's target market: technical writers. They almost always have some Web skills, but Web development (whether server side or Flash) is not generally their strength. On reflection, I realized that Macromedia had been crazy like a fox. Having captured the lion's share of client Web development users and becoming a major player in server-side development (Dreamweaver MX is now both a client and server development tool), Macromedia sees another big opportunity in Web development: online Help and simple multimedia. Online Help and Flash "show me" videos may just be what your site needs to increase its effectiveness and usability.

I spoke with Macromedia officials to find out more. Mike Hamilton, RoboHelp product manager, reinforced my usability hunches. "Use of Help is almost a repeat of what happened ten years ago on the desktop," says Hamilton. "Applications and README files got bigger and more complex, which broke the usability model. The same thing is happening in the Web space. When you get over 30 or 50 FAQ items, the model breaks down."

Miriam Geller, Macromedia's director of product development, pointed out synergies between the eHelp and Macromedia product lines. RoboHelp can deliver large structured Help systems or on-line documents to supplement traditional web FAQs or PDF files. RoboHelp X5 provides source control APIs for Visual Source Safe and Star Team if needed. RoboHelp can now import many source file types, including XHTML or DocBook. Subject matter experts and technical writers can now use RoboDemo 5 to create Flash-based "show me" videos in a fraction of the time it takes to author them in Flash. I remember spending over 30 hours developing a three-minute Flash-based "show me" video. Macromedia claims such development can now be done in a tenth the time and that you can integrate RoboDemo videos with Flash systems if you choose.

Macromedia cited the U.S. Coast Guard as one showcase user of RoboHelp X5, RoboInfo 5 (a pared down version of RoboHelp), and RoboDemo 5. For about a year, the Coast Guard has had a large public-facing system for port engineers ( The site uses RoboDemo and RoboInfo to deliver Help systems for several online applications including the Coast Guard Human Resources Management System (CGHRMS), which is based on PeopleSoft. Help makes it easy for the Coast Guard to update the CGHRMS daily.

I've used these products and they are slick. I will be even happier when they provide better support for XML, including graphic (SVG) and multimedia (SMIL) standards. Still, if your Web reports suggest visitor confusion, a technical writer with usability and Help development skills may be the all the Help you need.