Community-building User Assistance
For a great example of community-based user assistance, sign up for Trillian, a cross-application instant messaging client (www.trillian.cc). I did so and then went to their help to find out how to add a contact. I entered "add contact" in their search engine and was taken to a forum thread where a user had posted instructions for adding a client. The post included the user's picture!
Granted, it's an instant messaging site--they are all about community--but it's a technique that stodgier apps could also apply.
Why Incorporate Community-based User Assistance?
I'll be real honest, something seems a little topsy-turvy at first about letting users write (or least contribute to) the user assistance. Aren't we supposed to know more about our applications than our users do? (let it sink in, two...three...four) Says who?
There is an underlying assumption that people who build an application know more about using it than the people who use it. That is not always the case. Users have more contextual knowledge than the inventors do in many cases. Add to that the fact that user assistance is typically written by technical communicators (that would be us) who are often isolated from both the inventors and the users. At best, we typically document as designed whereas users understand as built and as used.
I was at a presentation some work colleagues of mine did at Georgia Tech last week where our Chief Information Architect made the point that a successful product should build communities as a way of raising the cost of leaving the product. He struck a metaphor of selling one's home and moving. It's not just the house you would be leaving, it's the community and all you have invested socially in its members and institutions. Products that build communities encourage loyalty. User assistance has a unique perspective to bring to community-building: getting the user in touch with others who have met and solved the same problem the current user is struggling with.