Browse Sequencing in Online Help Systems
We have all been lost at one time or another in the maze that sometimes constitutes online help and documentation. Unfortunately, most of us do not know we are lost until it is too late and we are beyond finding our way. It is not uncommon to enter an online help document seeking answers to specific questions, only to leave frustrated and asking even more basic questions (Andrisani et al. 2001).
As paper documentation continues to give way to online equivalents as the primary source for presenting instruction and user assistance, the concept of browse sequencing should be considered in document design. The purpose of a browse sequence is to lead users through help documents in a sequential order arranged by the writer of the document (Farkas and Gibbs 1994).
Browse sequences, much like the orientation of printed documentation—where step A precedes step B and step C follows B—are often omitted from help systems. One survey found that only one-third of help systems contained browse sequences (Elley 1998). While the omission of browse sequencing from online help allows greater freedom on the part of the user, it also presents the potential for confusion if the user accesses help topics in a different order than the help system’s author intended.
The navigation from one help topic to the next may cause confusion among some software users because there are multiple ways for accessing information in online documents (e.g., a contents page, index, or full-text search) (Elley 1998). Despite numerous avenues for retrieving data, three situations contribute to users becoming lost or disoriented: 1) they do not know where to go next, 2) they know where to go but not how to get there, or 3) they do not know where they are in relation to the overall document (Andrisani et al. 2001). One way of helping users navigate successfully through help documents is organizing information in a way that is similar to that of a printed book. The book analogy should be considered by online help authors (Andrisani et al. 2001). Browse sequencing works in a similar way. “The role of a browse sequence is to provide the equivalent of sequentially reading a book” (Farkas and Gibbs 1994, 266).
Various design options are available for help authors who wish to incorporate browse sequencing in their documents. Two examples are single segment and multiple segments. Single segment is the simplest method for establishing a sequence. This long, single sequence contains most, if not all, topics found in the help system. A variation to this is multiple segments. Here the user is presented with multiple segments, each containing similar or grouped topics (Farkas and Gibbs 1994).
Should my help system contain a browse sequence?
Browse sequences can provide a valuable service to users. Sequences present information and help topics in an organized, logical manner which reduces opportunities for the user to become lost in the document. With that said, there are two reasons typically given by help authors for not using a browse sequence: 1) users don’t use the browse sequence to its full potential, and 2) browse sequences are difficult to design for large and complex systems (Farkas and Gibbs 1994).
Analyzing potential users and the size and complexity of the help system are the best ways to determine if a browse sequence should be incorporated in a project. Designing and situating a browse sequence within a help system may not always be easy, but it is worth the effort if it increases usability and user performance.
Andrisani, D., A.V. Gaal, D. Gillette, and S. Steward. 2001. Making the most of interactivity online. Technical Communication 48(3): 309-323.
Elley, F. 1998. The state of navigation. STC Proceedings. Society for Technical Communcation, http://www.stc.org
Farkas, D.K., and Gibbs, B.R. 1994. The browse sequence in online help. STC Proceedings. EServer TC Library, http://tc.eserver.org