I had a thought this morning while talking to my roommates about the meager help system in CivicSpace. It so happened that we weren’t even talking about CivicSpace, but after the FLOSS Sprint this past weekend, my mind has been circling around ways for making web interfaces not only more usable but simultaneously more helpful.
More specifically, the standard help menu in any software, at least for me, is fairly worthless. It requires a massive investment on the part of the user in terms of time spent searching and reading. And generally, help ROI is quite low, meaning that for the amount of effort I put in to searching, reading and forum-browsing, I rarely get out in support what I put in.
Help is hard
Why is this? Because help is hard.
Help is both hard to write from the developer perspective and it’s hard to know what you’re looking for as a user. Terminology gets in the way as do the various mental models that people use to understand what software is or what it can do.
Therefore, in order for help to be truly helpful, help should not only be presented in a sensible, digestible format, but it should be timely, accurate, contextual and convenient and accommodate the different ways that people might conceptualize the support that they need.
To that particular end, I think that support systems should become more social in nature, providing direct access to communities and networks that can understand and cope with vague, non-descriptive or otherwise unclear assessments of someone’s needs. I propose that CivicSpace adopt a social model of support that increasing reliance on and participation in the greater CivicSpace community. Gmail seems to get this, although they’ve minimized its presence on the help page:
Support by RSS
So in addition to encouraging more community interaction for support, I also suggest that we tie actual help requests or bug reports into a CivicSpace user’s remote account in order to bring the history of support inquiries into a familiar and convenient environment. As it is now, the Help menu that CivicSpace ships with is all but completely useless for most of our users. You get a handbook for the installed modules and a glossary of terms… ok, not worthless, but certainly not helpful. What would be better, I think, is a menu like this:
Granted, this is just a quick mockup, I think that it begins to bring the support process more in line with user needs and provides it in situ rather than externally, like bugzilla or the current CivicSpace Issue Tracker. With this kind of system, I imagine that clicking on the main Help menu would return a page with a special search field along with RSS feeds of your recent support tickets, of community support requests and updates of any support communications you’ve recently made.
So now that I’ve outlined this big idea, I wonder if anyone has any additional suggestions or comments on how my thinking could be improved or made to be more in line with your support needs?