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?

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 …