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.

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?

Google Chrome OS Help – What will it be like?

Techcrunch has reported on an early glimpse of Google’s upcoming Operating System, Chrome OS. So, you are no doubt asking, will Chrome OS come with online Help? Will it be initiated in a similar way to Help in Windows or by some sort of new means?

From the screen shots on the Techcrunch site, it appears, yes,  there will be online Help. It will be initiated by clicking on a ? button in the top right hand corner. In short, it appears Google will be sticking to standard User Interface conventions. What’s unclear is whether the Help pages will be stored locally on the machine or “in the cloud”.

Nintendo patents new Help/User Assistance system

Various computer games magazines are reporting news of a Nintendo patent for providing user assistance to players during a game.

The patent describes “Demo Play”, which is intended to keep casual players interested in complex games in a way that doesn’t conflict with hardcore gamers’ requirements.

Advanced players can play normally, while less experienced players can get the occasional helping hand. Hints will appear in a screen that pops up in the top right corner of the screen at different points of the game. These video hints would appear only when the player gets stuck on a particular puzzle for a set amount of time.

Potentially, the computer could take over the game playing at points too tricky for a less experienced user. In a second mode, an introduction or overview form named “digest mode”, the computer displays the game’s key scenes, and allows players the opportunity to stop the digest at any time and play the scene themselves.

According to the Kotaku Web site:

This patent, if implemented correctly, could successfully help gaming make the leap from narrative fun, to something more open-ended and free range, the first real sandbox video game.

Imagine being able to play a game with all of the benefits of characters, story and goals, but without having to spend 10 to 20 hours of your life to enjoy doing so.

It’s likely to be first seen in the Wii version of “The Prisoner of Zelda”, due out later this year.

User assistance developed for computer games could move across to desktop software and Web (SaaS) applications. It’s also possible that computer games developers will draw upon the lesson learnt from developing traditional user assistance, as their user base becomes more diverse.

Whether the patent restricts the opportunity to build on these ideas is something technical communicators and Help Authoring Tool developers will need to consider, should they wish to create a similar system.

Which Help Authoring Tool developer will be the first to integrate Google Wave into its application?

Google Wave, the latest tool in development at Google, offers workflow and collaboration capabilities that will be of interest to technical documentation teams. With Google Wave’s open API, there’s the potential for developers of Help Authoring Tools to integrate Wave into its application and into published Help.

The first 50 minutes of the video below demonstrates Wave’s capabilities:


We can see a number of potential applications in technical documentation:

1. Embedded into online Help. Here the potential benefits are in providing real time conversational support for users within online Help.

2. Managing documentation projects. Wave could make the process of gathering information from Subject Matter Experts and reviewing drafts a little easier, through its collaborative documents capabilities. Also, the playback feature offers a new approach to version control.

3. Re-use of content. Wave appears to turn messages and replies into components. You can drag and drop chunks of email threads into other conversations, Blogs, bug tracking software and elsewhere. Could these, perhaps, be embedded into online Help in a useful way?

4. Multi authoring. More than one author can edit the document at the same time.

5. Drag and drop hyperlinking.

Wave has some very attractive capabilities, and it is something we should all await with interest.

How can technical authors become part of technology ecosystems?

Jonathan Mitchener has written an article in Engineering and Technology magazine on the interest of technology providers in creating “ecosystems”. This is the concept of offering not just gadgets but also a range of related products and services, which can integrate seamlessly with each other in an overall system.

The poster boy for this ecosystem approach is Apple, which in recent years has introduced the iPod, iTunes and approved iPod accessories, as well as the iPhone and the iPhone App Store.

Each product and service improves the “user experience”, increases the overall sales and margins and creates a dominant market position. This means lots of people want to create similar ecosystems, and/or be part of a successful ecosystem.

So could this extend to technical authors? Could they contribute something that improves the “user experience”, increases the overall sales and margins and creates a dominant market position? Documentation is not something Apple is known to be good at providing, but you could argue documentation might play a part – in enabling users to make use of all of a product’s or system’s functionality.

However, for documentation to truly be a part of a ecosystem, then surely it needs to integrate seamlessly with other elements in the ecosystem as well?

Perceiving user documentation and online Help as a function of an ecosystem – interrelated products and services working seamlessly – might change the way in which technical authors approach the issue of creating user assistance. It could lead to organisations perceiving documentation not as a discrete “island”,  but instead as something that needs to integrate with user documentation for other components of the ecosystem. It might also lead to more content being embedded into the systems themselves – through the use of embedded Help, for example.

I’m not aware of anyone who is explicitly using an “ecosystem view” of user documentation at the moment, but it could emerge in the future. Technologies such as XML, and DITA in particular, offer a way of creating documentation in a way that makes integration with other documents possible.

If more companies adopt the approach of creating an ecosystem, then technical authors will need to communicate their value in the context of this approach. They will have to ensure that what they produce is consistent with this approach, as well.