A study and application of online help for novice users



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Texas Tech University


In the last two decades, the power and complexity of computers and software have sky-rocketed, leaving many users behind. To keep up with the amount of information users need, technical writers are moving to online documentation. Online information can be updated and delivered electronically, which is much quicker and less expensive than printing a hardcopy manual However, online documentation can be daunting to some novice users who are used to the affordances of a hardcopy manual (Norman, 1988). How can we, as technical writers, assist them to navigate efficiently and locate information in an online environment?

Novice users comprise the largest group of computer users. In the past, the largest group of computer users were programmers and computer scientists—expert users familiar with the technology they created. When online documentation was first implemented, it was written by and for expert users. But now this documentation poses a problem for novice users unfamiliar with both the technology and the terminology of computers. As computer technology has become integrated mto everyday life, technical writers have become increasingly aware of the novice users' difficulties regarding online documentation. In response, many studies of novice users have been conducted to determine their attitudes and behaviors when using online documentation. These studies have resulted in books and articles exploring online documentation for novice users.

This essay will review some of these books and articles in an attempt to analyze and compile the knowledge about the needs and behaviors of novices users. Once these needs and behaviors are recognized, technical writers can produce online documentation to fit the needs of this ever-growing user group. Although this essay targets online help, the guidelines and novice user analysis can be extrapolated to other types of online documentation. The first part of this essay will focus on studies that reveal characteristics of novice users such as their expectations, perceptions, and behavior patterns, contrasting novice users with expert users. The second section explores how online help) can be designed to graduate the novice user into an expert. Drawing on this knowledge of novice users and how they progress into experts, the final part of the essay will provide a set of practical guidelines for writing and designing online documentation for novice users.