Avoiding the “user guide” or “help system”

A primer on user assistance for startups.

I think two design choices can help a user learn new software without requiring her to read “documents.” They are:

  • Self-explanatory user interfaces.
  • Video demonstrations.

Self-Explanatory UI

I see many software interfaces that a few minor tweaks could make more self-explanatory. For example:

  • Carefully written labels. They might have short primary text and longer secondary text, visually distinguished from primary.
  • Tool tips that pop up.
  • Visual organization that implies relationships between elements.

Of course, it can take more than tweaks to fix a user experience that doesn’t match the user’s intuition about the tasks.

Introductory Videos

And I believe most users will prefer to “get started” with a screencast video rather than text to read. Of course, keeping the video under 3 minutes will make it more likely to be viewed. Therefore most software would require a series of videos. Planning the content for the series will be non-trivial.

Nonetheless…

I don’t think well-assisted software can completely avoid documents (unless it’s small and single-purpose). There’s still a place for:

  • Reference materials (as distinguished from tutorial materials).
  • Glossaries (if the subject matter is technically complex).

How well have you been assisted to learn new software lately?

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