[Univ of Cambridge] [Dept of Engineering]

CUED Help Systems - a case history

Our Site | History | Current set-up (1996) | Issues and Evaluation | What others do | Looking Ahead | Afterthoughts: 1996 | Updates
Not much about the theory of online information systems, more about the forces that shaped the development of the current system

Our Site

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 on site.


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 3 labs, 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 exists.

Commercial help systems exist, but are hard to justify for smaller sites. We have tried various free options.

Current set-up (1996)

We've used the WWW to provide help to users for nearly 2 years The help system's entry page offers various navigational means The material comprises a few dozen big documents with connecting tissue - nearly 5000 files. About 10% of higher level links are external.

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 and help.

Issues and Evaluation

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.

What others do

Looking Ahead

Afterthoughts: 1996

Running a departmental helpdesk is easier than running a general CS one because

Update: 1998

Update: 2000

Update: July 2005

Written on 8th July, 1996. Updated in 1998, 2000 and 2005