Measuring the value of Help in desktop applications

One of the challenges for Technical Authors is quantifying the value of what they produce. For example, how can you tell how many people are reading online Help when the software is installed on someone’s desktop computer? One application mentioned in passing as last week’s UAEurope conference, ApplicationMetrics, might be able to provide the answer.

ApplicationMetrics collects usage and platform data, behind the scenes. It’s a product that is no longer being developed any more, but you can still download it. It may enable you to collect “operational funnel” data that’s similar marketing funnel data – test and track whether users are going to the help and resolving their issues.

 

Towards Flow-Based User Assistance

Flow theory is a psychological concept that is gaining interest in e-learning. It is a concept that should be also considered in the fields of User Assistance and Technical Communication.

Flow is akin to sportsmen being “in the zone” – flow is the situation where people are happiest when they are completely engaged in a task.

Online Help has been traditionally interruptive – people have to subconsciously admit they have failed and need to seek assistance from a Help file, Web page or user guide. The adoption of the term “User Assistance”, instead on online Help, is part of movement towards new models for minimising the situations where users get stuck, helping them quickly should that happen.

The conditions necessary to achieve the flow state include:

  • Having clear goals
  • Direct and immediate feedback
  • The right balance between the user’s ability level and the task
  • An activity that is intrinsically rewarding.

Flow-based User Assistance complements concepts such as adaptive content, as it implies content should adapt dynamically to explain information in the most suitable way. It also complements ideas such as affective assistance, conversation and community based documentation, in that these may be a more suitable “tone of voice” in certain circumstances.

In practice, this means that User Assistance is likely to be embedded into the User Interface – for example, helping explain what certain concepts mean, and what makes a good choice.

It is a very good approach to take if you are developing apps for mobile phones or tablets. This is, in part, because the iOS operating system has limited multitasking capabilities – you have to interrupt one activity in order to do another.

To adopt a flow-based approach, User Assistance must be planned and considered from the very start of any software project. As it is not a bolt-on to the application, it cannot be left to the end of the project. Guidance text becomes located in numerous different places.

The reward for taking this approach is that users get stuck less often, enjoy the application more and become more capable users, perhaps even at peak performance.

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.

London’s “boris bikes” lack a certain something

I decided to try out London’s Barclays Cycle Hire, known colloqually as “Boris bikes”, yesterday. There are 6,000 bicycles distributed across central London that you can hire on an ad-hoc basis.

While the scheme is a great concept, for the casual user it lacks something – information on using the bikes! Where user information is provided (on the Transport for London web site and on the payment ticket, for example), it’s pretty good:

However, I couldn’t find any information on how to book and return a bike on the docking station terminals themselves. The terminals are where the casual user pays for the hiring of a bike and receives the code for releasing a bike from its clamp:

A little bit of information at the docking station terminal itself would, I’m sure, encourage even more people to use this valuable and worthy service.

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.

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.