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?

User Assistance: Prevention or cure?

In 2011, will we see a trend towards preventing users getting stuck, rather than curing them after they’ve got stuck?

User Interface design is preventative. Support is curative. User documentation is, in most cases, curative.

With new technologies for assisting users emerging, Technical Authors may have the opportunity to provide assistance before users get stuck. However, would they and their organisation be comfortable with this change? It is said that, in medicine, it’s more difficult to get funding for preventative measures than for curative medicines, even though the former can be significantly cheaper. Will this also be the case with User Assistance?

One way to tell if an organisation would be receptive to this idea is to assess the value it places on usability, compared to supporting users. Once again, it’s important to develop meaningful measures for the value and effect of Users Assistance. If it can be shown that greater value and significant savings can be made, by using this approach, then any decision may become more straightforward.

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?

The wonderful, horrible life of User Generated Content

User Generated Content (UGC), that is user documentation written by users, is growing trend in the world of technical communication. However, although there are enormous benefits from UGC, we’ve found it can lead users to miss professionally written user documentation. The consequence of this can be that users search and navigate down blind allies in a search for useful and relevant information.

So is UGC creating a scotoma, or tunnel vision, in the mind of the users?

Let’s look at an example

This blog, by one software vendor, describes a solution for how organisation can host its own powerful content management system “in the cloud” for peanuts. It comes with disclaimers that this is not supported officially by the vendor, but there’s evidence it is possible. Via the comments at the end of the blog post, you’ll discover the original solution has been superseded, but the writer has helpfully provided a rough outline on the best way to do it today.

So the curious user is sent off on a quest to find the complete answer.

The first stop on this quest is the links in the article itself. Because the solution is not supported officially, in this example, the linked pages do not provide the full answer.

So what does the user do next? We found, in most cases, their second step will be to search on Google and see if the solution has been provided anywhere else. In this example, it will lead them to blog articles written by a variety of different people and organisations. This article, by Phil Paradis, for example, provides his solution to the problem.

We found the a key problem with the user generated content in the scenario above, it wasn’t clear whether the advice was still valid or not. A user could spend a great deal of time diving into the murky depths of Linux terminal commands, only to discover eventually that the hosting software part of the solution had been updated to be more user-friendly. What’s more, it now came with very clear user assistance.

Why are users going towards the unofficial documentation?

There are a number of possible reasons why users are more likely to be ending up looking at the unofficial rather than official documentation:

  • The user starts by reading a blog and expects the answer to also be in a blog. The reader has created a scotoma in their mind.
  • The search terms entered by the user into Google are more likely to lead them to unofficial content than official content.
  • Because the solution is not supported officially, the official documentation does not provide information on this topic.
  • The official user documentation is not ranked highly by Google.
  • The official user documentation has been poorly written, in comparison to the unofficial content.

What is the solution?

A lot of software solutions are based on integrating a number of applications and services together, and it’s not uncommon for people to be looking for the type of answer outlined in the example above.

As there are a number of reasons why the problem may occur, so there are a number of possible solutions:

  • The official user documentation needs to be findable via Google. If users begin their quest by searching, then they are likely to continue to use that approach.
  • Present professional user documentation and user generated content in the same system. If they begin by following links, then they likely to continue using that approach. If we can guide users to professional user documentation, with all the version control and provenance information it usually contains, at the right time, then we may be able to combine the best of both types of user documentation.
  • Engage with the bloggers via the comments to provide links back to the official documentation.
  • Consider the search terms users might enter and provide information that will appear high in the rankings. This may involve creating pages on topics that are not supported officially and contain a number of caveats.

We welcome your thoughts and comments.

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.

Why do Technical Authors only use two of the three qualities of good design?

Why do Technical Authors only use two of the three qualities of good design?

  • Vitruvius, the Roman architect, claimed a structure must exhibit the three qualities of firmitas, utilitas and venustas: it must be solid, useful and beautiful.
  • Paul Mijksenaar, a modern day Information Designer, turned these qualities into a practical three-point formula: Reliability, Utility and Satisfaction.

Though Mijksenaar did not design his device specifically to analyse information products, Anne-Florence Dujardin (of Sheffield Hallam University) argues you can use his gauge to rate and assess user documentation.

So why do Technical Authors often focus only on Reliability and Usefulness, and fail to take into account Satisfaction? Beauty is an emotional relationship with an object, so perhaps Technical Authors should be (a) measuring users’ satisfaction with what they produce and (b) creating more emotionally engaging documents.

How to you take into account users’ satisfaction with the information you publish?