Seven tips for a better Search

Do the users of an application or a machine read a manual? Forget it! They might scan the Requirements section and that’s it. Until something drastically goes wrong. Their phone is dead, so they cannot call support. Where is that manual? Oh..,<peep> how do I access this online help.

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Your user will not be in his most positive set of mind. He most probably is stressed. He is used to his search engine churning out an answer right away. So, no, he does not want to wait until Kingdom come until he gets the answer out of your documentation. He might be in a “close to  volcanic eruption” state.


For getting him back on his feet, get a smile on his face, be the happy customer he was before, i have listed a few tips to improve searchability.

Seven tips

  • Give your TOC an active voice.
    Do not create an entry like “Bookmarks”, but call it : “How to create a bookmark.
    This is a challenge in itself.
  • Add a mini-TOC to a large chapter, but try to avoid large chapters anyhow.
  • Add an index like you are creating a reference guide; so fill the index with short descriptions: “Edit bookmarks” , “Watermarks in PCL6” or “Limitations PCL6”
  • Create context-sensitive help. Clicking F1 and immediately being directed to the proper help content beats opening a PDF and start searching for the answer.
    • Create context-sensitive help for  parts of a window, like fields. If this is too much effort add tool tips or explaining text to the UI.
    • Create contex-sensitive help on window level.
  • Add a “See also…” section to your online help. Just condition it on topic level, so you can still work from one source in a HAT.
  • Use micro content in your online output. Micro content are short bits of information, describing an issue or a problem. You can use drop-downs for a better  looking page lay-out.
  • Get feedback from your users, so you know how they search your documentation. If you dont get any feedback, ask the girl at the reception and let her struggle through a questionnaire.

Bonus tip

Work on a help desk for a few months. You will be amazed at the wide range of questions you will get. From “I have new mail, but cant see it,” to “what ports must i use when upgradng my application..and if that port is blocked is it okay to use another one?


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