Thursday, November 30, 2006

Gap Analysis--
Sometimes we operate under the false myth that we must write user assistance for the lowest common denominator. I think this leads to bad help quite frankly. The better approach is to have a multichannel approach to user assistance and target channels toward the appropriate level of expertise for that channel.

I'm working on an embedded user assistance model (a dedicated help pane on the application UI), and this principle has suddenly clarified things for me. The issue came up, how far do we go with the embedded user assistance? My answer for embedded user assistance is, "Not too far." This channel is excellent for users that are almost smart enough to not need assistance. If the gap is large, other channels like elearning, tutorials, etc. are the appropriate place to deal with those needy ones.

In other words, it's OK to say, "You have to be this tall to ride this ride."

Once we accept this, then we can focus user assistance at the audience more appropriately.

Let's say you were doing an embedded user assistance for a word processor, specifically the part of the application where you do Headings and Footers. I'd note in the embedded user assistance that headings can be automated by inserting a StyleRef field. I might add that this helps users find a topic by browsing the document header.

But what if someone doesn't understand style tags, should we put help about that in the embedded UA? What about principles of document design in general and what constitutes good heading hierarchies and should the StyleRef refer to Heading 1, Heading 2 or what?

Nope, nope, and nope. A snippet of help in a narrow sidebar in the middle of an off-main-page task is no time and place to educate the user about document design. It is a good place to ooch a fairly competent user to a higher level of efficiency or performance.

Put the training bit somewhere else.

Besides, what are the odds that your lowest common denominator is doing headings anyway?

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