Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Applications as Tools--
In one of my earliest blogs I pointed out that the term "user" implied something "used." Part of understanding how to craft effective user assistance requires an understanding of different ways things are used.

I see applications as falling into one of (or drifting among) three levels of toolness:
  • Extension tool
  • Cognitive tool
  • Electronic Performance Support System (hat-tip to Gloria Geary)

Extension tools are a lot like simple mechanical tools: They extend a natural physical capacity. Think of a crescent wrench. It grabs a nut much the way our fingers would, just stronger and tighter. The wrench's handle amplifies the natural torque our arm provides. Similar thinking for a hammer: Its head is like a small hard fist and its handle amplifies the power of our arm.

A simple word processor (or one where just the basic functions of text entry and editing are used) is an extension tool. We can type, erase, and print pretty much the way we would write (or talk) manually--just faster and more legibly.

Cognitive tools help us think. What if instead of just sitting down at the word processor and typing a memo, I started in the outline format and organized my thoughts. Then as I wrote, I used the outline to evaluate the flow of my argument and dragged elements around until I felt the document flowed better? There is more going on here than using the word processor to make the task easier from the mechanical perspective. The tool is supporting higher order processes of rhetoric, composition, and critical thinking.

An Electronic Performance Support System (EPSS) brings data and domain expertise (guidance) to the user. Today's word processor, with spell check, templates, wizards, and collaboration tools, is very close to acting like an EPSS if not actually doing so.

Implications for User Assistance Architecture
As user assistance matures in a product, it moves the product up the tool hierarchy. When user assistance as a separate help file largely goes away and is replaced by more proactive strategies within the UI, it has elevated the product to an EPSS.

THAT is the value sweet spot.

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