Developing Usable Online Information for a Web Authoring Tool

Here are the following topics:

Usability of the Tapestry Software

Usability of the Tapestry documentation was affected by the Tapestry software development process. Market pressures and the rapid changes in HTML and Web browsers meant that Tapestry's developers had to develop the product very quickly. This left little time to test either the documentation or the software for usability. However, we believe that the Tapestry software is usable because it is modeled on the drag-and-drop style of the Apple Macintosh Finder. The Finder is a program that displays the desktop, opens and closes windows, and keeps track of your files and disks. The goal of Concept 1 was to make Tapestry work like an extension of the Finder.

By following well accepted Macintosh user interface standards, Concept 1 hoped to inherit the usability of those standards and capitalize on the familiarity and consistency of that interface. However, there are no formal testing results to support this claim.

In the rapidly evolving Web authoring tool market, there is still too much pressure to develop features. It will be some time before the market is stable and mature enough to justify formal usability testing of our software and documentation products.

From user feedback, it was discovered that the simplicity of the user interface may have been a problem for some people. It seems that some users expected to perform tasks the way they did in other applications. For example, when creating a link they expected to select menus and type a file name in a dialog box, instead of just dragging the file icon onto the selected text. Concept 1 solved this problem by creating QuickTime movies to illustrate how the software works. You can download the movies from Concept 1 Communications on the Web.

Coincidentally, a technical writer using our Usability Index checklist also identified the same problem because one of the questions in the User-Oriented Tasks category is "Is there a procedure for a getting started task?" The writer recommended adding a task-oriented procedure to the user guide describing how to create a simple Web page.

Creating a link using drag-and-drop

To build a Web page you simply drag and drop a text, graphics, sound, or video document from your desktop to your Tapestry document. Figure 2 is an example of how to drag and drop a link from the MyPage document into your Tapestry document.

[Dragging and Dropping a Link]

Figure 2, Creating a link using drop-and-drag

Answering User Questions on the Web

In the past, technical writers updated user guides based on questions from users or documentation problem reports from the software support people. This updating process usually took a few months because the enhancements were distributed with the next release of the software. Today this process takes only a few days because enhancements can be distributed by simply updating the user information on the Web. The user information can include the online user guide, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), and even QuickTime movies.

Distributing user information on the Web can quickly increase the usability of the software product. The use of QuickTime movies is particularly effective for small companies that do not have large multimedia budgets. These new methods for distributing information also mean that technical writers have to learn different skills, such as Web publishing. During this project we relied on many friends and colleagues to help solve development problems, for example producing the movies and Web pages.

For help when using a software application, most users want answers to questions, for example "How do I remove a link?", and according to Horton [6] online information should be designed to answer user questions. From the start, Concept 1 Communications was committed to providing support answers for Tapestry both through traditional documentation products and the World Wide Web.

The Tapestry support services include:

E-mail support is available at and answers are generally provided within 24 hours.

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