Changing times in technical communication 3 – The long form Help topic

New York Time snow fall article imageOne of the most recent developments in web page design has been the introduction of “long form” web pages. Will we also see the long form approach used in Help, or perhaps start to influence the way some Help pages are designed?

What is long form?

Instead of breaking an article into a series of short single page sections, the long form article is published as a single page.

Examples of this approach are:

Atlassian's Infor Quest infographic screenshot

With the introduction of HTML5, web designers have been able to present longer pages in new ways, which they argue makes longer web pages more readable (i.e. usable) than previously possible. A few things you might notice from looking at those web pages:

  • Navigation links tend to be provided at the top of the page in a non-scroll region, enabling the reader can jump to a particular place in the article.
  • They are very visual, containing lots of images and videos.
  • The articles often contain videos that automatically play when your cursor moves close to them.

Every Page is Page One

Mark Baker has been advocating the “Every Page is Page One” Help topic, which you could see as a relation to the long form article. His seven principles for designing Help topics in the age of the web are:

  1. Topics should be self-contained.
  2. Topics should have a specific and limited purpose.
  3. Topics should adhere to a type.
  4. Topics should establish their context.
  5. Topics should assume the reader is qualified.
  6. Topics should stay on one level.
  7. Topics should link richly.

“Every Page is Page One” topics tend to be longer than traditional Help topics, although not as long as the long form articles we provided links to.

Wither minimalism?

Technical Authors are taught to write short chunks of information, so is the long form approach wrong or are Technical Authors being taught incorrectly? The answer may be that long articles suit a particular type of user (or users ): those that want understand a topic in depth, and those who want to have an overview of everything in one single place.

These are typically two types of users: advanced users and beginners. These are represented in the purple and light blue boxes in the two images below:

new strategy for assisting users new strategy for assisting users

What do you think?

Do you see yourself writing longer Help topics, writing Help articles, in the future? Is this a good idea? Share your thoughts below.

See also:

One Comment


Interesting article, Ellis, thanks!

I wonder whether the long form topic is actually a way of writing topics – or a rendering mechanism that HTML5 makes possible. What’s keeping me from stringing several modelled and typed concept and task topics into a long form topic where the topic headings become section headings? I may choose “long form” for large screens and individual topic delivery for mobile.

I would also argue that EPPO topics as Mark Baker proposes needn’t be considerably longer than traditional help topics. The only difference in terms of content and scope is often “4. Topics should establish their context”. This, as Ray Gallon, has been showing in recent months, can often be achieved by one or two sentences. All other principles, as I understand them, remind us to take topic-based authoring seriously and implement it consistently.

So currently I don’t expect to change my way of writing topics – but I will continue to craft them so they work in different rendering modes, including long form topics.

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