Documentation does not seem like a particularly exciting topic, so I was pleasantly surprised when this presentation turned out to be one of the most interesting sessions of the entire Vienna conference.
Jeff Conrad, a Senior Content Experience Manager who leads one of the teams responsible for Microsoft Office help content, pulled back the curtain on how the sausage is made when it comes to Access, Office, and VBA documentation.
A Special Surprise
Jeff opened his session with an announcement that the long-dormant "What's New in Access 365" web page had been updated only minutes earlier.
In fact, as of the time of the presentation, Microsoft Access was the only application in the entire Office 365 suite with its own What's New page (most other applications only have What's New pages for the latest perpetual release, Office 2021).
Here's a snapshot of what's on the "What's New in Access 365" page:
Official Microsoft Access documentation is fragmented in a variety of ways.
To begin with, Access developers actually require documentation on multiple interrelated products:
- The Microsoft Office suite
- The Microsoft Access application
- The Jet/ACE database engine
- Visual Basic for Applications
Additionally, the help content itself is fragmented among different locations, including:
- SMC: support.microsoft.com
- LMC: learn.microsoft.com (not available via in-app help)
- In-App Help
• Only version-specific SMC help shown
• [Show me] action button guides you within the app
Where Do You Go If You Have Access Questions?
Jeff gave a quick rundown of where to go to find answers to specific questions you may have when developing Access applications. The bullet points below are from Jeff's slides.
- General use of Access features
- New feature information (hopefully)
- Access video training
- Content for Access 2007 and Access 2010
- Troubleshooting/KB type of information
- VBE/VBA reference content
- Code samples
- Developer documentation
- Object model/property information
- Office automation information
- Office add-ins information
- Deploying Office/Microsoft 365 content
- ACE/JET error messages
In-App Help Pane
- Scoped help search to just content relevant to your Access version (Subscription, 2021, 2019, 2016, and 2013)
- Other SMC content Access + Office shared
- Context sensitive help (except VBE window)
- Quick entry into Contact Support workflow
- Quick entry into providing feedback to Microsoft
Helpful Web Sites
All Other Questions
If none of the above resources provide you the answers you need, Jeff provided one final (tongue-in-cheek) fallback option:
Jeff shared some interesting internal Microsoft telemetry data regarding official documentation.
Most Visited Access Articles on SMC
Top Search Queries for In-App Help
What are you doing to improve Access help content?
In the final portion of his session, Jeff shared some of the efforts underway to improve the Access help ecosystem. The most interesting of these was in the area of "disambiguation."
CSH stands for context-sensitive help.
When users search for a help topic and there are multiple matches, they are taken to a "disambiguation page" where they are shown the possible matches, ranked by most to least relevant. Internal data showed a shockingly high 91.5% abandonment rate on those pages.
In other words, if users were shown multiple help options, they simply gave up.
Based on this data, Jeff and his team set out to remove these disambiguation cases and instead show only the top result to users. While this content may not be exactly what the user was looking for, it only needs to be correct about 9% of the time to be an improvement over the existing status quo.
Q & A
Jeff answered several questions during the Q&A session at the end, but I found the one below noteworthy:
Q: What system does Microsoft use internally to create and manage its documentation?
A: Microsoft currently uses an in-house web-based system. However, in the past, they used XMetaL.