Friday, February 23, 2007

Effective User Assistance Design: Ten Best Practices

Assisting users to use your product ...

"In a utopian world, a product would be so perfect it would not need any user assistance at all. But in reality, products aren’t perfect, and users need assistance through different stages of their use. User assistance (UA)—in the form of manuals or online Help—guides users in their tasks, suggests better ways of getting their work done, and provides directions for troubleshooting their problems.

Designing effective user assistance is a challenge, especially within the available resources and time constraints. If you make a little extra effort and follow certain best practices, you can make your product’s user assistance a big success.

Here are ten best practices for creating effective user assistance:

Step into the user’s shoes—in mind and in practice. Gather information about your users in advance, profile them well, explore the way they work, then do your best to think like them.

Of course, a single typical profile probably won’t represent all of your users. More likely you’ll need to model your users by creating a set of distinct personas. These personas might represent roles in a corporate world—such as a type of knowledge worker, supervisor, or manager—or graded levels of skill—novice, intermediate, or expert. Personas might even represent users’ diverse goals in approaching user assistance. For example, users might simply want to learn a procedure. They might need help troubleshooting a problem. Or perhaps they lack domain expertise, as Mike Hughes described in his UXmatters article “User Assistance in the Role of Domain Expert.”

Users differ from one another in many ways. They may be old or young, skilled experts or novice users, rural or urban—which would likely have implications regarding the speed of their Internet connections. Users have different likes and dislikes, varying interests, and favorite routines. The key to creating successful products is in analyzing users’ needs, understanding their wants, and designing for their preferences.

Make the effort to find out what tasks users generally perform, how often they perform those tasks, and for which tasks they are likely to need user assistance. Such a task analysis also gives you a general framework for designing user assistance, including its delivery format, page layout, language, and the depth and complexity of the content.

If you can, test a prototype of your product with real users. While this sounds easy enough, in a globally distributed product development scenario, you may not have access to any real users. In that case, do usability testing with some local people who are as close to your user profiles as possible."    (Continued via UXmatters)    [Usability Resources]

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