Friday, October 27, 2006

User Assistance Behaviors--
In the upcoming February issue of SIGCHI's Interactions, I have an article entitled "A Pattern Language for User Assistance." The gist of its premise is that we often have style guides for technical communications that describe how information is to be presented, e.g., how elements in the GUI should be referenced, how procedures should be worded, etc., but we don't describe how the user assistance should behave. In the article I say:

Best practices in user assistance can no longer be developed and communicated in terms of "These kinds of words need to be displayed this way;" rather they need to be communicated in terms of "In these scenarios, the user assistance needs to behave this way."

In short, we need to treat the GUI and user interaction aspects of the user assistance itself in the way UI designers treat their GUIs and interactions.

Link Behaviors
In yesterday's blog I identified the following four kinds of links that can appear in user assistance:

  1. Initiate a popup
  2. Expand the text being displayed to reveal additional text
  3. Jump to a new topic and display it in the current pane--replacing the current text
  4. Jump to a new topic and display it in a new window or pane--keeping the current text in tact
Guidelines for user assistance writers should include when and how those links should be used. For example:

Definition links occurring within a paragraph or procedure should use a type 1 or type 2 link. If it is likely that the user would print the topic, consider using a type 2 link (expanded text). If the displacement of text could be disruptive or obtrusive for some reason, favor using a type 1 link (popup). If both types of links are used, use affordances or pliancies that differentiate between the two.
You may wish to be more specific in order to maximize consistency across writers, but the point is that the behavior of the user assistance needs to be part of the style guide or defined patterns. And those defined behaviors are not based on principles of composition, rather on principles of human computer interaction and usability.

The user assistance writer's reference bookshelf needs to look more and more like the UI or UX designer's bookshelf. How does yours look?

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