Why Isn’t a “Help” Helpful Enough?

It is strange – and true – that technical communicators, like you and I, are into a profession that most others care a damn about… unless, of course, they are in dire need. No wonder most of the users yearn for the documentation only for troubleshooting their stuff. “I want to somehow get through this”, they intend. So, for the most part of their exploring the product, the users are busy finding answers to their how-does-this-damned-thing-works questions. Why is it still that we are unable to design formats that can make the users’ troubleshooting pursuits easy and manageable?

If I think about this whole thing as a user, it seems a daunting task for me to search for something I am not sure about; All I want is to solve my problem. But, how do I go about the help? How do I know where exactly to look for? How do I make sure to turn all the stones before I take a step further? How do I know how much information is sufficient? How, just how?

The users, I find as a technical communicator, use the following justifications for sending verbal curses to our so called “Help”:

  • Can I search for pictures? Does your help contain data/metadata to support searching for pictures?
  • I am lost. Where am I? What was I searching for? Is this what I was looking for?
  • I am tired. I’ll rather sleep.
  • I believe the reviews on the Internet provide more information than you can possibly cover in your next ten iterations. Sorry, I prefer the reviews.
  • I got the Internet; I will Google things up! I don’t need you.
  • I have other, better things to do.
  • I want a PDF. Do you take orders?
  • Is that a Help? Almighty, help me!
  • That many pages… are you kidding me!
  • The help only answers questions on information that is otherwise obvious and easy to locate and resolve. Why would I need answers to such simple things?
  • This help is outdated. Is there a new version?
  • This isn’t what I was looking for.
  • What I read partly solved my problem. What about the issues that remain? And, where can I find information about how to resolve those issues? Hello, are you listening?
  • Why aren’t there any graphics? Your writing sucks!
  • You call those graphics? I am better off with the written text.
  • You can’t expect me to read 20-odd pages just to look for a one-line information tidbit.
  • Your help does not contain the keywords that I am searching for. Why?

Sadly, this isn’t any one-person opinion. Most of them have equally creative, purposeful, and heartfelt verbal abuses for the help texts we share with them. Fact of the matter? The help isn’t helpful enough. Yes, it is true that a product is like a shrine with a thousand doors, and that the devotees can enter from anywhere. Yes, it is true that each devotee has a story to tell and a prayer that they want heard. And, Yes, it is true that it is close to impossible to predict the needs of each devotee. But, hey, isn’t that what we do every day as technical communicators? Just some food for thought.


What questions do you ask to SMEs to begin with technical documentation?

During a recent online conversation, someone requested for a list of questions I would typically ask to a subject matter expert (SME) to prepare technical documentation for a topic. Of course, the parameters may vary, but there is still a list of questions that apply across all sizes or complexities of projects. In this post, I share with you the list of questions that I shared with them…

And that’s why I’d go for a mirrorless camera!

For the last couple of years, I have yearned for a camera. And, as usual, my tech-writer’s brain told me to begin researching, reading, and observing on the topic before I made purchases. So, over the years, I have developed an opinion. But first, some points for the premise:

  • I am an amateur photographer. That said, my Canon IXUS HS 300 is enough to do the job for me. In fact, I am now able to explore the limits of the hardware. And, that’s why I want an upgrade.
  • I realize that it is not the hardware, but the creativity that makes great photographs. So to say, the thoughts/vision, and not the camera, make for a good photographer.
  • None of the big/small camera companies have paid/will pay me to write this post. My opinions are my own, and right/wrong, the interpretations are entirely mine. You may please feel free to disagree.

Right so, here are those reasons that made me make up my mind in favor of a mirrorless camera:

Past vs. Present and Future

The story of cameras dates really-really long back in time. Once upon a time, there were those double-lens reflex cameras (also called the twin-lens reflexes or TLRs). Over time, the SLRs replaced the TLRs to make for the parallax errors. And, since then SLRs and eventually DSLRs have been waiting for their time to pass. Roughly for the last fifty years, the basic concept of capturing image has remained same: SLRs and later DSLRs have helped users see through a prism or mirror to view and capture images.

The DSLRs have a mirror, which reflects light from the lens to the viewfinder. When you click, this mirror flips out of the way to let the light (and hence the image) pass through to the sensor to capture the image. The mirrorless cameras do not contain the flipping mirror. This is a step ahead of the long-followed conventional DSLR style. And, I’d like to invest in a technology, which has a future. Mirrorless, therefore, rightly sounds like a choice.


Photography is not what I do for a living, so it is kind of obvious for me to NOT spend on the gear, unless I have money lying around in my account. Think about it: Would you, as an amateur, go for a camera that costs 70-80 thousand bucks in India? Hobbyist-level DSLR cameras are expensive in India in comparison to many other countries. Mirrorless are priced more so at par.

But, how is that a point in favor of the mirrorless cameras? Well, that’s so because the features that you get with even the entry-level mirrorless cameras, such as a higher frames per second (FPS) rate, come in the rather expensive full-frame DLSRs, which are quite an investment. So, you get the same output, but you pay only about half the price. Though not all amateurs will use such features, but I’d certainly like to experiment.

Size and Weight

Wait! But, you said you are an amateur. So, why would you talk about weight when you would carry the camera and its accessories for barely about a couple of hours across a week? The answer is: I am not the only one who will use it. And, I don’t expect my wife to carry a heavy gear when she’s capturing any precious moments with our daughter. Neither of us is a photographer by profession. In fact, professional or no professional, smaller cameras are easier for anyone to carry.

There’s another perspective to this point. Why does anyone get a DSLR? Let me give a hint: It’s to do with the oomph factor (of being one techy-geeky person in the room). Sadly, people’s opinion about technology in cameras is directly proportional to the added bulk in those cameras. The bigger, heavier the camera, the longer people’s oohs and aahhs are. And, if you buy a DSLR just for the seeking a longer ooh, please think again.

Let’ me get into the details now:

Live View and EVF

Almost all those professional photographers that I’ve met so far, have failed to understand the ease of using an electronic viewfinder (EVF) or the live view. I realize that it may be subject to habit as much as it is to choice. But, when you take your eye to it, you’ll see what you’ll get – much like the WYSIWYG editors in technical communication.

As an example, try capturing a picture with a DSLR with the sun glaring into your eyes. And, then try doing that with the electronic viewfinder. I’ve tried that. The electronic viewfinder shows only what the camera is about to capture. So, the viewfinder doesn’t let the extra light pass through to the eyes, because it intelligently shows only what the final picture will look like. It’s like viewing the picture before clicking it.

Another point: For a conventional DSLR, there will always be a time lag (usually in milliseconds) between taking the picture and getting it displayed on the live view of the camera. This time lag is on account of the flipping mirror. After you take a picture, the mirror takes some milliseconds to get back in the position. This time lag is not there on the mirrorless cameras, because there is no mirror.

If you are a professional photographer, you are most likely to fiddle with the camera settings for almost all pictures you take. On conventional DSLRs, such operations will have to be done using the live view screen. This makes it a little time consuming. I found that I could view the same things on the EVF. This means, I can do all the settings without taking my eyes off the EVF. Faster, isn’t it? But, for an amateur-level photographer that I am, I may not even need the viewfinder to take pictures. Some mirrorless cameras do not come with viewfinders. Perfect space and money savers for amateurs like me.

Video Mode

My friends who own DSLRs find it difficult to capture videos. Their DSLRs fail successfully especially in situations that demand continuous tracking of moving subject or changing of the focus. But, I’ve tried capturing videos on mirrorless cameras. The autofocus is a lot faster and accurate. The new mirrorless cameras can even capture 4K videos.

It is also to do with the focus systems. Most DSLRs have limited focus points. Also, by design a focus point guides the system to adjust the focal length of the camera based on the horizontal and vertical alignment of the subject and its closeness with the focus point. So, any change in the position of the subject will demand the photographer to readjust, track, and peak the focus. It is challenging in situations when a distraction comes between the subject and the camera. Mirrorless cameras are equipped with predictive, hybrid focus systems, which can help track subjects frame-by-frame, moment-by-moment. Chances are, you will never lose the subject even when there are distractions between the subject and the camera.

Burst Mode

Try capturing a fast moving object using the burst mode. If you are a pro photographer, you’ll know that most of the great picturesque moments lie between the shutter clicks. And, DSLRs can never match up to the burst speeds of the mirrorless rivals, which can impressively produce as many as 12 frames per second – In absence of the flipping mirror, the sensor can produce more images in the same time.

Megapixel Count

Mirrorless cameras, as I said, are a newer technology. The advanced sensors can accommodate more pixels into an image. This does not translate as a plus point. But, the additional zoom sure sounds like a deal. I am an amateur, and I’d like to zoom and print my pictures, assuming that I might not always get the right subject in focus. The added pixel count will mean that I can zoom in a little extra before printing my stuff.

Battery Life

I am not a professional. I do not do photoshoots that last 8 to 10 hours a day. But, I do understand that because everything in the mirrorless cameras – including the viewfinder – is dependent on the battery, the performance of battery goes down. Consequently, the cameras fail to get anything above 300 shots on an average. But, this doesn’t bother me as an amateur. I anyway don’t take more than 300 pictures in a day. Also, I can always switch entire to the viewfinder by shutting off the live-view mode, and save the battery for some extra pictures. Or, I can just carry an extra battery, if required. On these justifications, I count this point in favor of both the mirrorless cameras and the DSLRs.


Those DSLRs that fit into my budget do not offer connectivity options like NFC or Wi-Fi. And, those DSLRs that have those options are out of my budget. But, that’s not the thing with mirrorless cameras. The mirrorless cameras in my choice are social-media friendly – much like cell phones (only with a better image quality).


Some of my friends, and well-wishing shop sellers have suggested me against my wish of going for a mirrorless camera. Reason? Lack of lenses. But, that doesn’t bother me much. I am not a professional. So, even though I would want to learn about this artistic skill of photography, I will hardly use more than four lenses across the lifetime of my camera.

This brings me to the following choices: 18-55 (regular, daily use lens), 55-250 or 210 (for zooming), one prime lens (35 mm or 50mm), and one telephoto zoom (something like 70-400mm). But, that’s not only what I think is suitable. Most of the professional photographers I know, use the same lenses in their kits. I am not sure about what they mean by not having enough lenses available. Despite what the companies continue to offer, these four lens lengths will continue to be there.

Some of the professionals take this point in the light of the kit lens configuration with cameras. But, then I am not a pixel peeper. I can never poke my nose into the tiniest of spot to see if the zoomed part will be worth printing or if it will provide me the most natural colors out of the box. I can always use computer applications to adjust the colors.


The truth is, I just want a nice interchangeable-lens camera that gives me some added capabilities on top of a point-and-shoot camera; is nice enough to make room for the future; is light in weight and easy to carry; is easy to handle and operate; and will be tough enough to stand the test of time. And, that’s – precisely – why I’d go for a mirrorless camera.

I’ve started a new thread on the blog: Photography Basics. In this thread, I write about what I’ve learned on photography.

Connect Those Pesky Dots

“For god sake, once, just once, connect those pesky dots. Can’t you see that I can’t understand anything? Even a word?” That’s what I often say when I look at bad write-ups. I just can’t connect those pesky dots to see what the story is. But, am I the only one who rubbishes write-ups that often? Don’t you too?

I think a write-up is bad because it doesn’t tell me anything. So, if it is poem, I am like “Uh!” and if it is a story, I’m like “So?” Write-ups that do not take either me or my learning from, for example, point A to point B are bad write-ups for me. I do not read poems. Not from all the writers. I am choosy, because not all writers do justice to their works. But, here’s one who I read quite often, and every time I see a new poem, I realize the poet wants me to step into her shoes and flow through the story she narrates.

But then there are those writers, who can beautify their words, and still fail to get the messages across. In contrast, I would love to read those writers who can break the ice, tell me a story, and make me smell the flowers as I read through their texts – just like the Juhi’s poems I just shared with you. Such writers, I believe, are a lot more effective. That’s because they have a message for me. Beautification is not a message. Beautification may be important, but not for me.

My take? Fiction, non-fiction, biographies, and poems: I see that the quality of write-ups (good or bad) depends on the flow of thoughts from the intentions to the messages. This flow is what can help us connect those pesky little dots. The message in the flow is about something that I either need to know or am interested to know about. And, as long as the writer can help usher me through the tides of the emotions, and still communicate the message and bring me (or my learning) from point A to point B, I’m good.

Plain, simple rules, aren’t they? Flow and message! But, why am I writing this to you? Why? Or, is it not something you already know? How many of us not write to rant out our pain? How many of us write for the fun and soul in writing? I am not sure. Not sure, because I know that writing isn’t always for a purpose. Not sure, because we know that we know the principles or the idea, and yet not follow it. Most of us don’t. But, I think I do. Do you?

The Next Big Thing: Workshop

Next month, I am conducting a couple of workshops at the STC India Annual Conference, in Pune. I like to talk about technical communication. And, at the conference, I’ll meet a lot of those would like to talk to me about this faculty of knowledge. Also, information design, as a topic, has always fascinated me. And, this time, I am conducting the workshops on the same topic.

In one of my recent interactions, with the Information Design batch at the National Institute of Design, we discussed some design principles. This is one of the reasons I chose to talk about information design at the annual conference. I see that a lot of new writers in our faculty of knowledge are turning toward information design. And, all this just makes me more curious about the topic.

I plan to keep the same flow of thoughts for both the workshops: I will make my point; then I will help you explore the topic; and then we all will draw conclusions on it. The first workshop is on the pre-conference day, and the second on 11 December. You can read more about the first and second workshop using the following links: Workshop#1 and Workshop#2.

The colleagues at my office too are excited about the workshops. In fact, some of them have asked me about how they too can attend the conference. In case you have not registered for the conference, do so quickly. Those of you who regularly follow me on the social network have asked me questions about the workshops. One such question is about a typical format of workshops. That is an interesting question. In fact, that’s how I began my research when I was invited to speak at the conference.

My research says that every workshop (and the speaker) is different. So, there cannot be a fixed format for workshops. However, I think there is one template that every speaker follows: First, make a point and describe it; second, create an exercise for the attendees; third, restate your point in light of the exercise to help your attendees connect the new insights with the thought you initially established; and in the end, leave your attendees with a thought.

But, there is one thing I would hate to do at my workshop: lecture about things. This is YOUR time as much as it is mine. To be a little too specific, you have two hours with me on the pre-conference day (that is 10 December), and 45 minutes on the day that follows (that is 11 December). Please remember that these are interactive workshops. So, the topics cannot steer ahead if YOU don’t participate.

At the workshops, I aim to talk about some intuitive design principles that can help map the need of the user with the benefits of your products/service. But, unlike what most of us think, these principles do not belong to information design. The principles are what I call the torchbearers, because they remain same no matter what faculty of knowledge I apply. This is enough now: I won’t spill the beans! Attend the workshops to know more.

Trends in Technical Communication

In response to a reader’s question, I explore the impact of soft skills on the trends in technical communication. But, do the skills and trends have anything in common? Can the soft skills affect trends? If yes, how? Well, there are a lot of questions. And, I attempt to solve some of them in this post. Read the full post.

Reduce: To Improve

This post is about progressive reduction, which is what I’ve recently read about. From what I have gleaned, progressive reduction is about those gradual changes (mostly reduction) in the UI elements that relate to your time-lapsed incremental cognition of a product. In other words, progressive reduction is in continuously adapting the UI elements of your product based on the gradual improvement in its usability. Read the full post.

FAQs 2.0

This article focuses on the pin-pointedly accurate ad hoc solution – in the form of a FAQ – that saved the day for our customers. This document, which I’ve called FAQs 2.0, is a combination of troubleshooting information, FAQs and configuration settings. Read the full post here.

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My must-refer list of books.

This is one post, which every technical communicator has in their blog: A list of the must-have, must-read, and must-refer books in technical communication. I see that the list of books, which is although basic, will soon have some more names. But, I know you will like this one!

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Key to Quality Documentation

In this post, I’ve combined my understanding of the topics of rhetoric and minimalism to create two basic, understandable parts of the purpose of documentation: mean what you say and say what you mean. I’ve also talked about how the use of these two parts can improve the effectiveness in documentation.

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