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Use headings that reveal the tasks

The first place to tell users why they are being given information is in the heading. Users should get an accurate idea about the content of the topic from the heading. Each heading should reveal that the topic contains information about a task, and what that task is.

A static heading like "Authorizations" might be fine for a concept or reference topic, but for a task topic, the heading should reveal the task that users are being told how to do. A more helpful heading might be "Authorizing users" or "Setting authorizations for a user ID."

Be careful not to mislead users by using pseudo-task headings. Pseudo-task headings start with vague verbs, such as "understanding" and "learning" (and sometimes "using"). Pseudo-task headings mislead users in the following ways:

  • Pseudo-task headings make a topic appear to be task-oriented when it is actually full of conceptual or reference information. For example, a topic called "Understanding the file system" probably does not contain steps for understanding the file system, but instead contains reference information about the file system. A more appropriate heading might simply be "The file system."

  • Pseudo-task headings substitute artificial (product-imposed) task headings in place of real task headings. For example, a heading like "Using the SpellMaster tool" is hiding the real task, and should probably be called "Checking the spelling in a document" instead. The guideline "Focus on real tasks, not product functions" on page 27 of this chapter provides more discussion and examples of real and artificial tasks.

Headings are elements that help users find information. Good headings produce a good table of contents, from which users can predict what they will find in each topic: task, conceptual, or reference information. Therefore, this guideline is related to retrievability as well as task orientation.

The following headings are misleading and unhelpful:


Register usage

Administering authorization

The Dial-up function

Session initialization

Using the Define Font Window

Understanding hardware requirements

Some of the original headings hide the fact that the topic contains task information; others define the tasks in terms of the product; and the last heading misrepresents a reference topic as a task.


Linking with registers

Authorizing access to data

Dialing up the computer

Initializing a session

Defining a font

Hardware requirements

The revised headings clearly reveal the type of information that each topic contains; they use verbs that express user actions, and they indicate the goal of the action.

The revised headings use gerunds for task-oriented headings. Gerunds are not the only alternative for task-oriented headings. Your style guideline might call for headings like "How to define a font" or "Steps for defining a font" instead.

The following excerpt from a list of topics doesn't give the user any idea of what task the information supports:


Working with InfoDataMagic

  • Using collectors

    • Starting collectors

    • Configuring collectors

    • Stopping collectors

  • Using repositories


Managing copied data

  • Collecting data

    • Starting a data collection

    • Configuring collection properties

    • Stopping a data collection

  • Storing data

In the original list of topics, the headings could apply to a variety of tasks. Users who are not familiar with the terminology for the product have no idea what tasks the topics explain and could easily miss these sections in a list of topics. The revised list of topics shows task-oriented headings that should make sense to all users.

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