CUED Help Systems - a case history
Our Site |
Current set-up (1996) |
Issues and Evaluation |
What others do |
Looking Ahead |
Afterthoughts: 1996 |
Not much about the theory of online information systems, more about the forces
that shaped the development of the current system
We have 1000+ undergraduates, 300+ postgraduates and many of the staff have
accounts on our central system. An increasing number of users work off-site.
Users are assumed to have basic computer skills.
The main teaching system uses Unix, but we aim to offer information to
all people using computers here. We have over 1000 networked machines
I suspect growth of on-line help facilities at many non-central sites is
"organic" - a compost of manual pages, local handouts (by COs and users),
adapted material and programs' in-built help. Ours has grown from
similar components, but as the number and literacy of our computer
users has increased, and Teaching System computers have become spread over
our online help system has needed to cover more subjects
in greater depth. Now there's fairly good coverage of most computing
and IT issues. Hard information as well as lighter, chattier material
Commercial help systems exist, but are hard to justify
for smaller sites. We have tried various free options.
We've used the WWW to provide help to users for nearly 2 years
- Originally there was an introductory handout on Unix and online manual pages.
- We extended the range of handouts. We put the DVI files online and
wrote a menu-driven "handouts" script so that users could access them.
We wrote a menu-driven program that delivered text-only files. We began
to encourage the use of e-mail queries.
- We (briefly) used gopher to bring together the text-only and some
DVI files in a single hierarchical structure.
- We currently use the WWW. We still have about 60 handouts on our racks but
all of them, and much more besides, are available online. We provide a
number of e-mail contact addresses.
The help system's
offers various navigational means
- It's popular with users.
- The software's free and previous material can easily be incorporated.
- Remote users (including those with text-only access) can easily
be accomodated (we use few pictures and sometimes prefer ASCII-art to
- Software and hardware suppliers are increasingly providing documention
and support in HTML form.
- We can provide access to various information and query mechanisms
through the one interface. We use e-mail, newsgroups, DVI files, PS,
ftp, keyword search facilities, company-supplied HTML, man-pages, etc. See the
page as an example.
- From the same source files we can produce paper and online versions
(LaTeX, the html package, and latex2html; Word and Internet Assistant).
- We can devolve maintenance of material.
- We can show users information classified in a way (or in ways)
they want without
having to store the information using the same classification method.
- We can layer the information thus hiding complexity and providing
annotated overviews of the available handouts.
The material comprises a few dozen big documents with connecting tissue -
nearly 5000 files.
About 10% of higher level links are external.
- Task-based or Subject-based "tree" structures
- Keyword search
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Hot Links to popular subject areas
Our help command runs Mosaic or lynx according
to circumstances. help can be given an argument - one of a small
list of subjects. The idea of this facility was so that we could
provide 3 word answers (e.g "Do 'help quota'") to many common questions.
In practise, it seems to have encouraged people to confuse man
It's the first help system we've had that I'm happy with. I'd use it
to store the info I collect even if only I accessed it.
Running a departmental helpdesk is easier than running a
general CS one because
- Person-hours - Much of the initial structural work was done by
a Researcher/CO plus a keen and able post-graduate. I maintain my part of
the material by skimming newsgroups, adding my replies to students' questions,
and writing material pro-actively. Much of the material's stored as
as WWW use is being encouraged throughout the department, much of the CO
time spent on WWW development is on behalf of admin staff and the teaching
office rather than the help system. We are encouraging (not very
successfully) admin and teaching staff to maintain their own material.
- Trying to change user attitudes - The
transition to using online facilities is painful for some (for a start,
reading flat text from
a screen is reckoned to be 20% slower than reading from the page -
cut-and-paste is faster though), but
there comes a point where one has to use
stick-and-carrot tactics to encourage more use of electronic info
systems - for the users' benefit as well as ours. I think the time is
right to risk disenfranchising those who only read information off
paper. We have regular users
of our system who still don't use e-mail let alone the help system, so
personalised user education is still necessary. The online help
system gives me more time to deal with this dwindling minority. When
not to answer their questions directly, prefering to show them how easy the
help system is so that they'll look there first in the future.
We haven't restricted user access to support-staff, nor do we intend to,
but we've made help provision less dependant on staff presence - especially
important when the help providers sometimes
have deadlines of their own to meet.
- If people come to my office to ask me a question I try
to use the help system to show them the answer.
- If that fails I e-mail them the answer later, thus encouraging
the use of e-mail. Then I add the missing information to the help
system so I don't have to answer the question again. Telling the
user that I've done this helps them feel part of the team.
- When people repeatedly asked RTFH (sic) questions I sometimes ask
if I can watch them use the help system to see why they couldn't find
the answer themselves.
Frequently it transpires that they didn't try the help system first,
sometimes they've never tried it (though they say they have).
- If a user mails me saying "Help!!! how can I
forward my mail?", it's tempting to reply "Start help, go to the
mail section and look at the section about forwarding",
it's kinder to say "We're trying to improve the online help system.
Type 'help' and mail us if you can't find the answer as quickly as
- Problems that users have -
- Not knowing that help exists.
- Being put off by initial failure (if they fail to find information in
one field of study, they won't bother using the help system to solve
- Confusing help and man
- Confusing help with the help facility in bash,
- Not wanting to read more than a sentence or 2 of instructions.
- Over-using brute-force searches
- Feedback - We invite e-mail feedback from various pages,
but receive very little.
- Logging - We log all WWW accesses (out of term-time the main
page is read 30 times a day, the main
page 12 times a day, the main
page 21 times a day) and keep some record of what people didn't
easily find. We maintain a
We don't have a bug report tracking system.
- Availability - We've made just about everything available to the outside world.
I get more feedback, corrections etc from off-site than from CUED and it's
tempting to write the material in a site-neutral way. 'flat'
versions of major documentation can be produced in CUED and
Some of our subtrees are informally mirrored.
- Copyright Issues - We have copyright notices on all our major
documents, saying that educational establishments may use them free.
- Paper - Paper copies still are available, but we're making it
clear to users that these are likely to be out of date and lack functionality.
N.B. - we
don't charge for handouts, nor do we have print quotas!
we cover rather fewer systems and programs.
E-mail-delivered questions that are incomplete less often require a
request for more information, and since the help-provider happens to be
issues of whether the user or system is acting strangely can
rapidly be clarified.
it's easier to convince a user that if they take up too much of the
helpdesk's time then a colleague won't get enough help.
it's easier to educate users about using an online help-system, and
easier to make them feel part of it.
- there's likely to be one main help-provider, so there's less
of a need to maintain records.
- From July 1996 to May 1998 help system usage has doubled. We now
intend to use a new machine to provide WWW cache and help system facilities.
- The Task-based page has gone. The Subject-based page has been
improved. The keyword search is better. A link to the logs added.
- netscape is now our default browser
- More people maintain the material. A new C++ course has encouraged
more people to use the help system.
- A House Style has been adopted.
cisa-helpdesk mail list covers help desk issues.
- Usage is doubling each year - in May 2000 there were 151K successful
- Extra facilities (e.g. PHP3) for authors have been provided.
Update: July 2005
- Usage: a dip in 2003, otherwise ok. In May 2005 there were 421K successful
page requests. 8% of accesses from within cam.ac.uk
- Changes: Few. The "help" program now helps people who meant to type
- Options on the main page are
Each of the main sub-pages (on C++, etc) goes from shallow to deep. The
FAQ and subject index are "horizontal", dealing with each topic to a similar depth.
- Subject Index
- Word Search
- FAQ, Popular files, New Files
- Shortcuts to about 20 popular subjects
Written on 8th July, 1996. Updated in 1998, 2000 and 2005