Does looking at online Help make users forget?

Treasury at Petra, JordanOver the weekend, Dr Chris Atherton suggested I look at “the doorway effect”. You may well have experienced walking through a doorway and then finding you’d forgotten why you’d stood up in the first place.

Researchers at the University of Notre Dame have discovered your brain is not to blame for your confusion about what you’re doing in a new room – the doorway itself is.



From Scientific American:

The researchers say that when you pass through a doorway, your mind compartmentalizes your actions into separate episodes. Having moved into a new episode, the brain archives the previous one, making it less available for access.

The doorway can be a virtual doorway as well as a physical doorway. The researchers’ experiments involved seating participants in front of a computer screen running a video game.

So is this effect also happening when users need to leave a screen in a software application and read Help – be it delivered as a .CHM file, on a Web site or on paper?

The solution? If we deliver User Assistance (Help) in a way that it is actually located within the application screens, not only can we minimise the need for users having to go through a virtual door, we can also embed the learning into the users’ specific situations.

More: Scientific American article

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.

How software users become champions

Matthew Syed is a British sports journalist and former three times Commonwealth Games gold medallist, who has been investigating what is needed to make people excellent at doing any task involving complexity.

He argues that natural talent, your genes, are far less important than many people think. What’s important is practising what you can’t quite do. He argues we grow if we test our limitations, because our body adapts.

So what on earth does that have to do with developing software and Technical Authors? Syed argues there are two opposing views regarding success:

  1. One “school” believes talent is what makes success. This means that if you fail, you believe it’s because you don’t have enough talent. Therefore, you’re likely to give up.
  2. The other “school” believes success is all about practice – the quantity of practice, the quality of teaching and the willingness to test our limitations. This means that if you fail, you believe you can succeed with more perseverance and effort. It’s an opportunity to adapt and grow.

I would argue the whole philosophy of User Assistance is based around the belief that talent is all about practice. It’s easy to forget that others may think it’s all about talent – your developers may believe some users fail because they are stupid, and some of your users may believe they’re just not good enough to succeed. It’s worth checking what they believe.

Another implication is that we should provide assistance and guidance to users as they are doing the task. We should try to avoid interrupting their flow. This suggests providing Help and advice within the application screens themselves.

Thirdly, we should praise people for their effort rather than for their talent.


BBC Radio 4 Four Thought

What do you think?

What other technologies do Technical Authors and developers use from 1997?

Did you know the compiled Microsoft HTML Help format was launched back in 1997?

In 1997, you’d be using Windows 98 and Internet Explorer 4. Microsoft was buying a $150 million share of a financially troubled Apple Computer, and the first colour photograph appeared on the front page of the New York Times.

Apple in 1997

Almost 15 years on, this format has, apart from a few very minor updates, remained unchanged, and today, it is still the primary format for delivering online Help.

It’s possible to publish online Help in more present-day formats, using Help Authoring Tools such as RoboHelp, Flare and Author-it. These offer Technical Authors opportunities to be more innovative in their approaches towards assisting users.

So why are so many Technical Authors still using compiled HTML Help? Is it so good that nothing else can beat it? Or is there a reason why they haven’t moved onto other formats?

How the curse of the jilted Technical Author hit Google

Beware the software developer who releases software without adequate user assistance (in plain English: user guides and online Help) for “The curse of the jilted Technical Author” may strike your product.

This curse has just hit Google, who last week announced the demise of Google Wave.

Google released Google Wave without any online Help or a guide for users – just a 45 minute video and two shorter “getting started” video guides.

We blogged at the time of its launch that this could hamper the uptake of the software, saying:

While the application clearly works (although there is some uncertainty as to whether some behaviours are “features” or bugs), this unfamiliarity means that users could give up and reject the application.

(See Google Wave – A case study in 21st Century User Assistance and Google seeks to increase uptake of Google Wave by introducing witty user documentation)

As more complex software is released as “Software as a Service” and delivered as “in the Cloud” software, it’s likely more users will struggle and stop using the product – that is, unless adequate Help is provided as well.

UK Technical Authors reveal 5 business benefits of Web-based Help

Having your online Help published on the Web could do wonders to your business. Here are five business benefits:

1. Marketing SEO benefits

The search engines love the type of information-rich content that online Help contains (more information), because the content is valuable and other Web sites link to it. The result is these pages appear high in search engine rankings ( See Using Web Analytics in Technical Documentation: interview with an expert).

This improvement could also lead to an increase in leads from your Web site.

2. Reduce stress on your Support line

Many users begin by looking for answers on the Web before they call the support line ( see “Digital Natives” and the end of traditional hotline support and our support call cost reduction calculator). If they find the answer on the Web, then they won’t need to call the Support line.

3. Better customer service

There’s a new generation growing up who are shying away from telephone-based support in favour of text-based support (more information). By delivering assistance in the way they prefer, your providing better customer service.

4. Greater brand loyalty

You can allow your user community to add to the content. They not only improve it, but they also get a greater sense of belonging to your brand (more information).

5. Improved product development

  • You can get a better understanding of where users struggle with your product.
  • Web Analytics can tell you how many thousands of people are reading the Help and what they are searching for.