What is Task-Based Help?

Ever get confused by the term “task-based help” or “goal-oriented help”?

Lots of people are talking about task-based help, but if you’re new to tech writing, you may not know what that means.

And there’s some confusion out there. For example, “task-based learning” can refer to the way that people learn through doing things. That is, when teaching people to play a violin, a major step is putting violins in their hands. Doing the task helps people learn how to do the task.

But task-based help refers to something different. Task-based help means a help system that explains how to accomplish a goal, rather than explain how something works, or what the elements on the screen do.

If you’ve never heard this before, then you’re probably ready for an example.

Here’s a typical table of contents:

The “Birthday” screen

The “Calendar” feature

The “Submit” button

The “Return to Sender” screen

Readers who visit the help for the “Birthday” screen will learn about each button and field on the screen. Readers who visit the help for the “Calendar” feature will learn all about that feature.

And that’s ok if the reader is sitting on the Birthday screen and wants to know all about it. Or if the reader has heard about this wonderful new “Calendar” feature and wants to learn more.

But what usually happens is that the reader wants to get something done.

Someone’s mom is using this software to save the date for her daughter-in-law’s birthday. She doesn’t care about the “Calendar” feature (or any other feature). She doesn’t care about the “Birthday” screen (or any other screen).

In fact, this simple task of saving a birthdate might take her through several of the topics listed above. Maybe she’ll have to read about the Calendar feature, then go to the Birthday page, and maybe even the Submit button.

And now for task-based help:

Adding a birthday to the calendar

Setting a reminder

Changing a birthday

Deleting a birthday

Creating a calendar

In this case, the mom who wants to save a birthday can find the content faster. She also doesn’t have to skip around to different help screens just because her task takes her to different screens in the UI.

The writer is a step ahead of her needs.

It’s not just better for the audience

The main reason that task-based help is best is because, if you’ve done your job right, you’ll help more people more quickly than before. As I mentioned, most people don’t explore all around a program to learn everything about it. Most people just want to get stuff done.

But wait, there’s more!

Task-based help is also better because it’s a lot more fun to write. Rather than churning out dull and obvious stuff (“the ADDRESS field is where you put your address”), you get to think like your readers. Figure out what they’ll need and then give it to them.

It’s actually a creative and thoughtful process and it’s a lot more satisfying to finish.

By the way, it’s also a lot harder. It takes expertise. Anyone can type out what buttons and screens do, but you’ll need to be a customer-advocate to address the tasks that your readers will want to accomplish.

Being able to produce this kind of help is part of what separates you from the trained monkeys that your boss occasionally considers replacing you with.

Does this make sense? Am I leaving anything out? Are there other things that “task-based help” means to you?

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