Introducing the Head Up Display. Say hello to the future of the menu

The Ubuntu operating system is to replace its application menus with a  “head-up display” (HUD) box. According to Mark Shuttleworth, Lead design and product strategy person at the company behind Ubuntu:

We can search through everything we know about the menu, including descriptive help text, so pretty soon you will be able to find a menu entry using only vaguely related text (imagine finding an entry called Preferences when you search for “settings”).


One of the comments states:

I suspect that applications will need to give help documentation a more significant place in the development of the application than it currently enjoys. Help seems the logical place to embed command discovery in such a system especially in connection with a capacity for fuzzy searches.

Is a nudge enough to change user behaviour?

In 2010, the UK government set up a “nudge unit” to look at ways the public could be persuaded – “nudged” – into making better choices for themselves without force or regulation.

This should be of interest to software designers and Technical Authors, because perhaps the same techniques could be used in the field of User Assistance.

Yesterday, The House of Lords Science & Technology sub-committee reported on the results so far.

According to The Guardian, the theories behind the current work have a long history, but came to prominence in 2008 with a book called Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, by the Chicago Business School economist Richard Thaler and Chicago Law School professor Cass Sunstein.

According to the Belfast Telegraph, One experiment (prior to the nudge unit being set up) involved HM Revenue and Customs secretly changing the wording of tens of thousands of tax letters. This led to the collection of an extra £200m in income tax.

The paper states the unit’s approach centres on the acronym “mindspace“:

Messenger (i.e. he who communicates information affects its impact); Incentives; Norms (what others do influences individuals); Defaults (pre-set options tend to be accepted); Salience (revelance and novelty attract attention); Priming (sub-conscious cues); Affect (the power of emotional associations); Commitments (keeping public promises); and Ego (the stroking of which encourage positive action)

So is it working?

Unfortunately not in trying to get us to live more healthily, according to the House of Lords report. Committee Chair, Baroness Neuberger, said:

for the most important problems facing us at the moment, the science says that “nudging” won’t be enough.

That doesn’t mean nudging should be rejected out of hand – it might work in other areas, such as software usability. We’re unaware of anyone using nudge theories in developing software or User Assistance. It would be interesting to know if anyone has tried to apply it in that sphere – and whether it has worked or not.

What roundabouts can teach every software developer

Roundabouts have been in use in the UK for over 50 years, and today are seen as a natural part of the landscape – something as intuitive to use as a postbox. Everyone knows how to use them, they’re just intuitive to use, surely?

Apparently not, judging by this BBC article on the introduction of roundabouts to the USA and hundreds of American roundabout videos on YouTube (example below) .

It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming certain knowledge is common to everyone – that we all understand the basic concepts. This isn’t always the case, and things may not be intuitive. They may be easy to use, yes, but there is often a need to familiarise users at the start. This is true for software development as it is for roundabouts.

Help in your line of sight

In an article called “The Future of Advertising will be Integrated“, Mark Suster argues readers’ attention is focussed on text and not the banners around it. This “banner blindness” is leading advertisers to move their messages to “the stream”. An example of this is Twitter’s promoted tweets service, where advertisers can pay for a tweet to be featured on Twitter for a day.

If we’re seeing a move towards “integrated advertising”, does this mean we should also be putting online Help in “the stream” as well? Rather than waiting to be called up via the F1 key or Help button, should User Assistance be placed where readers’ attention lies? Should Help be integrated into the stream, too?

Help is broken?

Are we at the point when we need to acknowledge that classic online Help files are not working as well as they should – that is, as the primary source of information to assist users when they get stuck?

This is not a Don Draper “why I’m quitting tobacco” moment, and this is not a criticism of the Help Authoring Tool vendors. Instead, it’s a proposal that, in some situations, what is delivered as online Help needs to be substantially modified to meet the needs of many modern technologies and users.

What’s wrong with Help? Help is often a “walled garden” in an Internet-era built on knowledge sharing and collaboration. Usability in relation to the user interface can be poor at times. It’s hard to measure its value and the ROI. Even its purpose can be vague to some project managers. Unfortunately, there’s often just not enough time to make significant improvements. We could go on.

Many users still get stuck, and many products still fail to work when they’re linked to another. Words still are a key way of communicating and teaching users. We still need to assist users and we still need some form of Help. It could be a useful tool in “evangelism marketing”. It could do so much more. This is why we’re suggesting it’s time to take a strategic look at what and how we can provide Help for when users get stuck.

What do you think?

Using the Wheel – a story

This is an adapted version of a story from Selling the Wheel, by Jeff Cox:

Once upon a time, long ago, a resourceful fellow named Max came up with a brilliant idea and invented the Wheel. He said to his wife, ‘you know what, the Wheel is going to make us lots of money’.

His wife replied, ‘it seems to me that if we’re going to get rich, you’re going to have to go out out and get people to buy and use these Wheels of yours’.

‘My dear wife, the Wheel is is a brilliant invention! One does not have to sell brilliant inventions; they sell themselves. One does not have to instruct people how to use brilliant inventions; they are so intuitive, anyone can use them.’

Can you guess how the story progresses?

In praise of dummies

We live in a world so diverse and so complex that everyone has to deal with situations where we’re really don’t know what’s going on. We have to ‘drive blindly’ – we’re all dummies at some time or another.

The reality is, it’s rarely your fault.

The last person said to know everything about the world was John Stuart Mill. In the 137 years since his death, no-one else has achieved that feat.

John Stuart Mill

Instead, it’s the responsibility of the provider of a product or service to recognise that some of their users will be ‘dummies’. It’s their responsibility to find ways to make their customers capable and aware of what’s going on.

This is why good usable design, training, user documentation and other forms of user assistance are so important.