This is part of the Help Authoring Tips series.
A nice looking help file that contains bad content (inaccurate information, missing information, poorly organized, etc.), is still a bad help system because it fails the fundamental challenge – to give help. Having said that, the look and feel of a help file is important. It offers a sense of professionalism, confidence that the user can find information. It provides branding benefits – this is our company, our colors, etc. and we are proud of it.
While I expect that much of what I write will not be ordinary and obvious, I am likely to fail that personal challenge in this post because I think design issues in help are indeed obvious. The most simple rule is that it has to look good. Consistency in appearance is critical to the end user. So, here are a few rules to follow when planning the look & feel of your help file:
What Fonts Should You Use
Personally, I have been a great fan of Verdana for many years. Arial and other sans serif fonts work well in help because they are easy to read on a computer screen. Avoid unusual fonts that are unlikely to be found on your end-users computer. Avoid Times New Roman and other serif fonts that are harder to read on a computer screen. Try to avoid the use of italics (bold works better in most instances). A word here or there, or even a short phrase in italics isn’t impossible, but whole sections can be hard to read.
Using Colors in Help
Yes! Use color. Why not? You are not restricted by the cost of printing and when a screen has a monotonous appearance, it can sometimes be hard for your user to concentrate and gain the full value of the information you want to offer. Be conservative in your choices because people who open a help system are not there to be entertained. Navy is going to be fine; dark colors are better. Be aware of issues related to color-blindness – perhaps consider avoiding some reds or greens. Pastel colors and bright neon colors are going to give people a headache. Never lose sight of the fact that people need to read the text and work with the information you give.
Background Color and Images
Today’s help authoring tools have come so far in the 15+ years that I’ve been developing help systems. You can do such amazing things – that doesn’t mean you should. You can change the background color of the help topic; you can even put an image back there behind the text. It may make it look quite graphically appealing at the cost of damaging the user experience. I once had a graphic designer insist that the background of the help topic should be light purple against the dark purple text. I protested for the user; I almost begged. Finally, left with no choice, I generated two versions of the help file and went to the product manager. He took one look at the two options and essentially asked me if I had lost my mind. He pointed to the dark purple text on the WHITE background and said, “use this.”
I responded with – “Absolutely, and you should go tell the graphic artist our choice as soon as you can!” Remember your user has to read the file – not just look at it.
If your end user has to put glasses on to read your help file; you fail. If your end-user has to step back from the screen; you’ve done something wrong. The simplest answer is not too big and not to small. Though there are differences in font, a basic rule for font sizes in help would be:
Heading size: 14, 16, 18 (depending on font)
Body text: 9, 10, 11, 12 (again, depending on font).
Stay tuned for more in this series on Help Authoring Tips, coming soon.