The defining characteristic of the the modern reader is impatience. This is not a matter of moral or intellectual decline in the Internet age; it is simply a matter of supply and demand. No one willingly treks down to the village well with buckets in their hands once they have indoor plumbing.
In the last millennium, if you wanted a piece of information, you got on your bicycle, peddled down to the local library, browsed the card catalog, hunted through the stacks, found promising books, checked them out, peddled home, and sat down at your desk to read them. At that point, you had a fair amount invested in the book you had borrowed, and even if it did not yield an immediate answer to your question, you were motivated to stick with it a little, in the hope that the answer was buried in there somewhere.
No more. Today, if you need information, you Google for it, get thousands of results, ranked by likelihood, in less than a second. You open the first and read a couple of sentences. But your have no investment in this page. If it is not immediately rewarding, or at least highly promising, you hit the back button and select the next page on the list.
These are the habits of the average information seeker today, and they bring their impatience with them even in more closed environments, like your product’s help system. Any tech pubs organization that looks at its customer feedback is likely to see frequent complaints that the user could not find this or that piece of information, when that information is actually present in the documentation set. The impatient reader simply did not stick with the documentation long enough to find it.
Our second impulse (after we have got over the first impulse, which is to curse the reader’s impatience) is to try to make the information easier to find. All too often, though we take a second-millennium approach to this. We attempt to organize our content by creating hierarchies, or by reorganizing the hierarchies we already have. But the impatient reader has lost the habit of attempting to discover how an information set is organized in order to inform their navigation of the text. They belong to a world in which everything is miscellaneous and everything is accessible by searching.
And there is a second problem with each and every form of hierarchy that we attempt to build for the reader: our categories are not their categories. No matter how much customer contact we get, we never really learn to see the world as they see it. And in any case, not all our customers see the world the same way. Their categories are not each other’s categories either. Changing our hierarchies might reveal information for one reader, but only at the expense of hiding it from another.
The answer, I believe, lies not in creating a better hierarchy, but in making each topic we create as rewarding as possible as page one of a search result. The reliability, the utility, of the individual topic; the immediacy of the gratification it provides to the reader, no matter how the find it, is the key to satisfying the impatient modern reader.