Rob Houser is working on a Pattern Library for User Assistance (UA): At WritersUA, he proposed to collect examples for patterns in (embedded) user assistance to help teams and managers with whom UA professionals collaborate to better understand the benefits and value of UA. Among UA experts, it can help to establish and exchange standards by deducing principles and concepts from them.
UA patterns can be organized by the task they support, whether it is helping users to get started in a new application or task or to assist them in the correction of errors. A fairly well-known example of the first case is Internet Explorer’s help text that appears when you open a new, empty tab. Such a pattern can support users in:
- Understanding conceptual information what has happened, what options the user has, when to use this function and why.
- Make decisions by providing context, reference information about rules as well as hints for best practices.
- Solve problems by describing the problem, showing how to fix it, give background information, if available, and show how to avoid the problem in the future, if possible.
Such a library will be really helpful, because it will fill the gap between very formalized, but abstract topic types (concept, task, reference) as DITA models them and the wide variety of UA that’s actually “out there”.
With a community effort of collecting and annotating patterns, such a library can be a qualified, curated collection of best practices in UA that can help tech writers write better help faster by following tried and proven examples.
So I agree with Rob’s approach and think such a pattern library would benefit a lot of people. Personally, I can’t wait to start and deduce the underlying principles and concepts of sucessful UA patterns. While examples can be instructive, I prefer to work in more abstract terms. This would also square better with the general approach in UA to separate content from style. After all it shouldn’t matter whether UA is provided in the actual user interface (where real estate is often scarce, esp. in mobile applications), in a tooltip or in a separate window.
Chuck Martin also blogged about this interesting session. I’ll be following Rob’s efforts and report when there’s new developments.
Is this something that would help you as a tech writer or UA professional? Would it be instructive to have annotated examples of best practices in user assistance? Please leave a comment.