Making Socially Enabled User Assistance Better– “Help” vs. ”HEEELP!”

Someone posted to the Content Strategy Google Group asking about Help content.  I didn’t have a lot of time so I pinged over my fav article going on Help these days: Scott Abel’s The Future of Technical Communication Is Socially Enabled: Understanding the Help 2.0 Revolution. Since, Dana Chisnell then challenged me:

Why are you providing help? Any time you have a separate system for the help, you’re in trouble. Embedding the assistance in the UI and surfacing it when the user needs it will work much, much better.

I couldn’t be more in agreement.

Socially enabled help almost immediately begets socially enabled embedded help.  It’s only logical, and it’s not even my idea, it’s already happening. Smart companies generally (regardless of social enablement) are bringing user assistance (the posh word for Help these days) into the UX and the UI, not making it retrospective.

On demand is good, but you want to assist users before they ‘demand’ it. In other words: Help should help, not wait until the user needs ‘HEEELLP!’

The problem with the world today

Today the user assistance user experience story is:

“What’s that?  I can’t figure out this UI! I hate this company! HEEELP!”

(Highly condensed of course)

It should be:

“What’s that?”

Helpful bit of content appears to the rescue!

“Oh. Ok. Now back to what I was doing”

What we need to do

Here’s Noz’s official to-do list for the Help World:

  • Help needs to be socially enabled (Scott’s already broke it down for you)
  • Help content needs to be brought into devices and UIs (hardware, software, website – whatever!) so that those with content skills work in harmonious partnership with those that have UI, UX and development skills.
  • The application assistance architecture should be socially extensible so that the social components of help integrate nicely with the brand-generated components

Here’s some examples of companies that have it part right:

Adobe Photoshop Help Offline

Right-click and view/open in a new window to enlarge.

If you’re offline, hit F1 in PS and you go to a html-based help file (html, running offline from a folder on your computer).  Note the PDF link on top right.

The Default page says: Community help!  In other words, to really get the full experience, go online and join the party!

Adobe Photoshop Help Online

Turn ye ol’ Net back on and Adobe takes you straight to a website that looks exactly the same, but new features abound:

  • Feedback
  • Options to search through help for other applications
  • Still available as PDF!
  • Community intro link available (blue, bottom left)
  • Commenting
  • Comments RSS feed (subscribe to this piece of content!)
  • And so on… explore it yourself for fun.

Right-click and view/open in a new window to enlarge.

This is good, but it could be better.

Let’s compare with one of my favourite apps, Ableton Live:

Ableton Live Context Ultra-sensitive Help


Right-click and view/open in a new window to enlarge.

In Ableton, help is in panes within the UI.  Once you’re experienced user, you hide them both away and only bring them back as needed.

  • Big stuff like tutorials, walkthroughs, set-up instructions, is on the right in the main help pane (F1).
  • Bottom left we have a little hide-able pane that constantly pops helpful information and short-cuts for anything I hover my mouse over (the ‘Live Device Browser’ in this case).  That is to say, new users just leave that baby open, and you instantly know what every UI item works, and the short-cut for triggering it:


If we’re honest, most users avoid manuals. They learn by some other method; probably by poking at the UI, popping into a search engine, or eventually getting frustrated enough to ask a friend. If they are truly desperate, they will finally resort to opening up a manual. With this approach Ableton have managed to adapt their presentation of information to the user, rather than trying to convince the user to adapt to the way they present information.

The Promised Land

Of course, we should bring the two together, so that the web dazzle of Adobe’s help appear in the UI like Ableton’s.

Agree? Disagree?  Let me have it in the socially-enabled comments.


Dana pointed out I forgot to mention mobile devices and hit me with this great soundbite:

“…we should all be thinking about what will work on the tiny screen that will scale up, not the other way around.”

I also forgot to mention:

  • Great help doesn’t mean UI/UX designers can all start leaving work at 3pm! The idea is to avoid needing to get help in the first place, no matter how nicely it’s delivered.
  • Those implementing DITA or any other Component CMS platform should be thinking about how this social content gets round-tripped back into source so that the brand-sourced content, service desk knowledge-bases, intranets, and the product itself are all improved by leveraging the crowd’s contributions.

1 Comment

  1. B. Noz Urbina

    Before anyone points it out, no PS’s help is not context sensitive… it just goes to the root of the help either online or offline.  Also I think that’s a missed trick!



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