What is User Assistance? It’s a lot more than the Help Desk

User AssistanceUser assistance is simply something that helps users of your product or service. User assistance takes many forms. Deciding what form(s) of user assistance to create and where to publish it depends upon factors including audience, purpose, and context. Below are some examples of the types or forms of user assistance that you can produce.



Forms of User of Assistance

  • Labels, tags, stickers, warnings, symbols, inserts, etc.
  • Hard copy user guide, manual, quick start guide, Quick Reference Guide (QRG)
  • Soft copy online help, Intranet, support site, wiki
  • Release notes
  • Instructor Led Training (ILT)
  • Virtual Instructor Led Training (vILT)
  • eLearning curriculum, course, class, event, game
  • Video (not to be confused with thinly-veiled marketing materials)
  • Simulation (show me, let me try, test me)
  • Live help desk support
  • Software setup wizards
  • Social sites, moderated forums, social user assistance manager, ticket system
  • Onsite support
  • Coaching, mentoring
  • Therapy

What Mix Lord Banquo*?

Every product and service is different and therefore the mix of user assistance items that you produce and maintain is different. Prior to launching or implementing your product or service, you’ll know some of the items you’ll have to produce. However, some you will learn by experience. You’ll collect metrics of problems that users face, how they contact you, and where they expect to find help, etc. From this data, you can alter the mix of user assistance, or further develop some of what you produce.

Self Help versus Live Help

In general, live help is relatively more expensive compared to self help systems. Steering users to self help versus live help can reduce costs.

Where is the Help?

It should be exactly were your users expect it to be. When you field-tested your product or service, you probably identified areas where users might have questions or have to make decisions. This data will help you determine what types of user assistance to create, and where to place it. Have you noticed that a lot of products have toll-free telephone numbers on them. Is a live help desk the best answer for your product of service?

* Why a Shakespeare reference you ask? Stick with me here as I explain… Lord Banquo (your technical communicator and user assistance creator sidekick) was Macbeth’s (your noble product or service) ally when Macbeth faced the three witches (your customers and critics). Banquo provided calm council during this difficulty, much the same way that having expertly crafted user assistance and a user assistance plan will give you confidence. Nice huh?

Is Email your Knowledge Management System?

2009 Jed Cawthorne

(c) 2009 Jed Cawthorne

Like a lot of things, Knowledge Management (KM) can be exercised at either end of the; cost, ROI, and elaborateness spectrum. At the high end, very elaborate and costly systems can be built so that knowledge workers can share and collaborate among themselves, with the rest of the company, and with the outside world. The ideal system is a robust many-to-many system that allows for both structured and unstructured information, and that is easy to use, flexible, and secure. This ideal system manages company-maintained information ensuring its security and integrity as it is entered and edited as well as when it is consumed.

These systems function best when they are reasonably easy to use and everyone in the company buys in to it. When these systems are perceived as unreasonable and people don’t buy into it, users improvise workarounds and end up using other systems such as their email systems as their default KM systems (KMS).

Knowledge Paths

Ideally, information flows from the knowledge worker, perhaps through an editor or publisher to the Knowledge Management System (KMS). The consumer retrieves the info from the KMS. This sounds simple. Building, securing, communicating, encouraging, and enforcing such a system is another matter.

What happens in the real world is often quite a bit messier.

  1. Someone suggests that something be documented (because no one really planned for documentation at the outset)
  2. Meetings and email fly
  3. Drafts are passed around via email
  4. Someone may accidentally save a draft to SharePoint or a similar platform
  5. Document is finalized and published, perhaps to the Intranet, or SharePoint… and then forgotten about
  6. Instead of updating the document that’s published, contributors make changes to internal (non-published) copies
  7. Repeat all steps above when revisions are required

The result of this inefficient process is that bits and pieces (artifacts) of the information, and the process to create it, are spread around in peoples heads, in meeting minutes, on note paper, in email, in drafts, on shared drives, or even in collaboration platforms (mostly by accident). As you can imagine, most of this information is easy to lose.

Email KM for Everyone

An easy cheat, or workaround, to an elaborate KMS, is simply to keep your knowledge in your email system. Associates are pretty much forced to do this if they don’t have a KMS, or what they perceive as a  reasonable KMS.

They’ll also do this if  instead of publishing to a KMS, many people simply save all, or most of their email. They may move it around, categorize it, and create folders and sub-folders. But, they’re essentially just saving all of their email. When they want to know something, they search their email. This is obviously not a many-to-many scenario. Each person controls the information in his/her mail box. And can delete it.

Email KM is not efficient, but that’s what is most common in the real world.

How Not to Create User Assistance with a YouTube Video

You Tube IconYoutube is great, right? Over the years, many of us have used or possibly produced Youtube videos to learn about or demonstrate products or services, for example, how to install or fix something. But, you know what? Many user assistance videos (versus entertainment and marketing videos) that you find on Youtube are excellent examples of how not to create user assistance. They often have serious problems and shortcomings. This, of course, is due to lack of planning, knowledge, and experience on the part of the creator. For example, a 15 minute video would be much more effective at 5 minutes (the author threw in a bunch of off-topic info). Or, the author launched into the details without first giving us an idea where in the process we are, what the pre-requisites are, what the outcome is, or any troubleshooting help.

Information Mapping, Structured Writing, Information Types, Organizing Principles

Amateur video tutorials would be so much better if authors followed a simple methodology such as that of Information Mapping with its information types and principles for structuring information that Robert Horn identified. These ideas however, are probably beyond the scope of the everyday Youtube video creator.

Youtube User Assistance Videos are Often Missing a Few Important Ingredients

Some of the important ingredients that are often missing from amateur user assistance includes; meaningful titles, context, introduction, table of contents, references, contact information, and review/summary. These items are often severely neglected or completely omitted by creators of Youtube user assistance-style videos.

Start with an Outline

As you do for all writing projects (all projects???), you should start by creating an outline. I always jot down my outline on paper or in Notepad. If you prefer Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, or another authoring tool, use that. In your video you could display the text of the title and other items, the contents, but you could just as well simply mention them. This depends upon your overall design.

Set up your Environment for Recording

Before hitting the record button, have all of your resources set up and ready to go. Viewers don’t appreciate having to wait while you waste their time setting up your environment.

Don’t Go Off Script

It should be fairly obvious, but you should follow your outline and limit extended and off-topic discussions. You should also have something happen visually every so often so viewers are not looking at an unchanging screen while you talk. You should describe what you are showing and show what you are describing.

Keep it Short and to the Point

The length of the video is something that is often wrong. Take a look at a sampling of user assistance videos. You’ll notice pretty quickly that with the proper planning and execution, that the videos could be shortened considerably. I’ve done no research, but I can imagine that many videos could easily be condensed by one half to two-thirds. That’s significant editing!

A Few Key Points

  • Create an outline
  • Gather materials and resources
  • Rehearse
  • Set audio and video parameters
  • Don’t go off script
  • Remove unnecessary parts in post-production

Tell Users to Select, Not to Click or Tap

GreenCheckMarkIn our mobile first world, where we’re first developing sites, applications, and user assistance for mobile devices, telling users to select something is probably a better choice than telling them to click. Since more and more people are navigating with their fingers (on all kinds of devices), they’re generally selecting something rather than clicking something with the mouse.

Is Select Ambiguous or Inclusive?

Select is inclusive, and yes maybe a bit ambiguous, of all the methods users might use to…well, select something. There might be a click or clicking noise involved, but we as developers don’t know what device the user might be using, or what some upgrade might do to its behavior vis-a-vis a click. And we don’t know if they have clicking/selecting noises turned on.

Users may be selecting something in a drop-down menu, a radio button, a check box, or a date in a calendar widget.

Click on, Click off

If you’re still telling users to click something, my preferred construction is to write click without the on. So, I never write Click on the icon. Just say Click the icon. Users know what this means. And it saves an unnecessary word. Of course there are exceptions. And if you’ve read the above, you’ll undoubtedly say Select …

Four User Assistance Publishing Platform Types

User Assistance in the CloudBefore creating user assistance (user guides, articles, videos, online help, classes, courses, curricula, certifications, assessments, etc.), part of the process of planning it is understanding how, where, and by whom this information is used. When you understand this, you know what platform type is best for your situation. Here are the four general types of platforms to consider. Keep in mind that you can publish pretty much all types of user assistance (file types) to each of these. The differences are; how closely integrated the information is with your system, and how much control you have over access and editing. The four platforms are not listed in any particular order. There’s a fifth publishing type; printing hard copy. For the purposes of this article however, I won’t describe printing.

Learning Management System (LMS)

An LMS is traditionally where we publish learning events such as classes, courses, curricula, certifications, assessments, and documents. LMSs allow significant customization in look and feel, catalogs, categorization, curricula, notifications, and reporting. Here are some of the key characteristics.

  • generally controlled viewing access
  • integrate externally-authored courseware
  • roster management
  • scheduling (ILT, vILT, and eLearning)
  • generate and send custom notifications (email, text)
  • track completions and scores
  • standard and custom reports
  • integrate with your directory service, such as Active Directory, for single sign-on (SSO)
  • AICC, SCORM, Tin Can compatibility
  • both a push and a pull system

Learning Content Management System (LCMS)

An LCMS is similar to an LMS although an LCMS is generally geared more toward hosting documentation (user guides), than classes, courses, and curricula. Companies may use their intranet, SharePoint, Wiki, or other system to host and manage their LCMS.

  • generally controlled viewing access
  • check in, check out
  • scheduled publishing
  • authoring templates
  • integrate with your directory service, such as Active Directory, for single sign-on (SSO)
  • generally a pull system


This could be your company’s public web site or a whole host of Internet platforms such as social sites (facebook, Twitter, etc.), or video hosting sites (Vimeo, youtube, etc.). Companies may publish their more sensitive or proprietary information on a closed/access controlled system (LMS, LCMS), but also publish their more public information to sites that are accessible to the general public, and prospective clients.

  • open viewing access
  • marketing/business development purposes
  • wider audience targeting

Your System or Application

Your user assistance can be integrated and published with, and on the same platform as, your system or application. The authoring of the user assistance may be part of the process to create the system or application, and/or standard third-party authoring tools can be used. For example, your development team uses Visual Studio 2013 to build a system, while also integrating user assistance into the development/build process. In addition, instructional designers use other tools, for example RoboHelp or Camtasia, to create additional user assistance that is also integrated into the build/publishing process.

  • publishing sync’d with releases
  • content on same platform as system
  • context-sensitivity
  • content potentially closest to point of use

Three Words I Always Look for When Editing (need, which, utilize)

Want versus Need imageThere are three words that I search for (and often edit) when reviewing a document. Even before skimming or reading a document, I often search for these words to get a flavor of the quality, tone, grammar, and formality of the writing. If you read, write, listen, or edit, you probably see, hear, or edit these three words quite a bit.

The three dirty words are:

1. Need, Excessive Neediness

Need is probably the most tortured and abused word in the English language. It’s dropped almost everywhere. And dropped inappropriately, I must add. I call it Excessive Neediness. There are two rules that I follow when looking at need.

  1. Only animate objects have needs. Non-living objects cannot possibly have needs.
  2. Political or emotional use. Used as an emotional or pleading-type of appeal.

A poorly crafted email message says that this project needs to be completed by the end of the week. Interesting. Projects have needs. Didn’t know that!

A biased newspaper article may explain that a certain agency of the government needs more of our money in the form of higher taxes in order to…

2. Which Versus That

My experience is that writers and speakers often use which when they should use that as the relative pronoun. In section 5.202 of my Chicago Manual of Style, I find that that is “used restrictively to narrow a category or to identify an item.” “Which is used non-restrictively – not to narrow a class or identify an item – but to add something to an item. “Which should be used restrictively only when it is preceded by a preposition (e.g., the situation in which we find ourselves). Otherwise it is almost always preceded by a comma, a parenthesis, or a dash.” The confusion usually arises when which or that are used as relative pronouns to introduce adjective (or relative) clauses. The rule of thumb, is that which clauses are nonrestrictive (nonessential to the meaning of the sentence) while that clauses are restrictive (essential to the meaning). Note that rules and customs in British English may be different.

I think that writers want to be more formal, or appear to have given their writing more thought. They think that which lends their writing a little more formality.

This article from Get it write online gives a good explanation and a few examples. There are certainly many examples…

3. Utilize Versus Use

Utilize is a fussy non-word in my book. It doesn’t add anything to a sentence that use doesn’t already handle. Instead of utilize use use, or better yet, an even more descriptive and accurate verb or sentence structure.

Performance Analysis and Instructional Design in Five Phases

Performance Analysis Instructional System Design Nine Events of Instruction ADDIEThe five phases below describe how we might go from determining that training is the appropriate intervention through the process of actually designing and building training materials, particularly eLearning. I plan to discuss these five phases in greater detail in additional comments, but I want to put the five phases together and in perspective, relative to one another.

1. Performance Analysis (Mager & Pipe)

The process of performance analysis informs us of the symptoms (if we don’t already know them) and more importantly the causes of a performance gap. After we know the cause then we can design appropriate interventions. Managers sometimes jump to the conclusion that more training, or refresher training, is the answer to a performance gap. The research of Mager and Pipe, and others shows us that this may not be the case. Before designing an intervention, we must look into the cause of the performance gap. The Mager and Pipe Analyzing Performance Problems model is an excellent starting point in that discovery process. In the case of training for new processes or training of newly hired associates, there won’t be a performance gap that we have to analyze. This is because we already know the performance gap. However, Performance Analysis is still the first thing we should consider.

2. Instructional System Design (Dick & Carey)

After we’ve determined that instruction is the way, or one of the ways, to close a performance gap, we map the instructional strategy by following the steps in the Dick and the Carey Systems Approach Model for Designing Instruction. The core of this model is to develop instructional goals based upon the performance goals within the context of the learners and an instructional analysis. The instructional analysis tells us what our learners have to know in order to perform the tasks we want them to perform. After determining the objectives, we develop how we’re going to assess how well learners meet the objectives (pretests, post-tests, practice, etc.,). From there we can develop and test materials in an iterative process.

3. Nine Events of Instruction (Gagné)

Robert Gagné provides us with a useful outline and organization of what should be included in a course. Here are his nine steps, or events of instruction.

  1. Get their attention. Why is this important to the learner?
  2. Objectives: What will the learner/performer gain from the instruction?
  3. Integrate with existing knowledge: Ask for recall of existing relevant knowledge.
  4. Provide content
  5. Guide learners
  6. Elicit performance: Learners respond to demonstrate knowledge.
  7. Provide feedback
  8. Assess performance
  9. Enhance retention and transfer to other contexts

4. Develop Materials (PADDIEM)

After completing the analysis and planning in the three phases above, we’re ready to put pen to paper and design our materials. We may start with a title and an outline, or just the outline and work out the title later. From the outline, we flesh out the content. We basically write a script, then a storyboard, then go to the authoring tools. We could use whatever project management (PM) methodology that makes sense. A PM process depends upon the size and scope of the project. Larger projects probably require more rigorous PM. The ADDIE model is often mentioned as a basic foundation for PM. We get PADDIEM when we add project management, the P, and maintenance, the M, to the ADDIE model. Who developed the ADDIE model? Good Question. No one seems to know.

5. Testing, Evaluation, Maintenance

Although the ADDIE (or PADDIEM) model includes implementation, evaluation and maintenance, I think these items deserve to be on the same level with the other four phases. Depending upon what we develop, we are going to have to test it at various stages and from various perspectives. We have to test publishing and implementing in whatever platform we use for that purpose. We also have to evaluate its effectiveness at changing behavior. This however, may have to wait until the eLearning is deployed. And after we have deployed our eLearning (or other intervention), it may require some maintenance. The project may have to be updated due to; the audience in the LMS, content, or technology (or all of these!).