Creating personalised Help content in customisable software

Since we began Cherryleaf, we have presented and blogged on future trends in technical communication. Sometimes our predictions have come true, and other times they have not (yet!). At the tekom conference, back in 2003, I made a prediction that Technical Authors would be creating Help systems where the Help was personalised to the user’s current situation – containing information and examples that related directly to how their system was configured and the task the users were doing.

It was a time when many organisations were installing large scale enterprise applications, such as SAP, and configuring them to their unique situation. Technical Authors were faced with a need to strip out Help that was consequently longer relevant, add additional information, and put the information in the right context for the users’ specific circumstances.

An example of this, at that time, was the online Help provided by eBay. Help topics included information on the item you were looking at and the price you’d need to bid.

The technical communications community is, in 2012, still talking about the potential for personalised and customised content. Creating such a system does create challenges, particularly when users can, for example, extend and adapt software with macros, plugins, modules, database tables etc.

However, the good news is that it is a lot easier to develop customisable, configurable (“adaptive”) Help in 2012 than it was back in 2003. We can use DITA (and other XML approaches), server-based Help authoring tools, even wikis. You can have software generate a call to the Help in a similar way to generating a database query (containing parameters relating to how the software has been configured), with the Help topic being created dynamically. You can also provide Help content that users can filter, supplement and customise themselves.

So will we see more Help systems delivered in this way? If we see more customisable software and more server-delivered Help topics, then perhaps our prediction in 2003 will finally become more widely adopted.

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