Help! User assistance and HCI

XIV.1 January + February 2007
Page: 22
Digital Citation

Who you gonna call?

Fred Sampson

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Help systems have come a long way since the days of Microsoft Windows Help 1.0, and the capabilities of user-assistance technologies continue to grow and develop. More and more help is finding its way into the user interface, through popups, tooltips, mouseovers, and better labels and hints right where users need it. At the same time, new ways of educating users are finding their way into what used to be a closed system: traditional help systems created as a separate component.

Today, information about a product comes from many sources: marketing and sales collateral, graphics and text in the interface, printed or softcopy books, Web-based delivery, and visual and aural cues. Tomorrow, information will come from podcasts, SMS messages delivered to cell phones, user-annotated documentation, wikis, even videoblogs. The challenges and opportunities for helping users succeed with our products are seemingly endless. As a result, technical communicators and information architects will find themselves essential parts of the user-experience design team, sharing design issues and contributing to solutions. The quality of the information that we provide can be a differentiator in a world of commoditized products and too many choices. And information about using our products will continue to come from multiple sources, not all under our control.

For better or worse, design communicates, and anyone who contributes to communication with the user is part of your design team. Is the message that our users receive the same message that we think we're sending? If the interface, interactions, user experience, training, and user assistance that we provide are not consistently on-message, we risk alienating our audience. If we—the entire design team—work together toward a unified user experience, we're going to come closer to satisfying the people we really work for: our customers, our users.

In the following special section on user assistance, you'll find a range of techniques for and experiences in communicating with users. Michele Zanda and colleagues reveal how a talking head can benefit the users of a Web application. Mike Hughes shares his thoughts on developing a pattern language for user assistance. Matthew Ellison provides best practices for the latest in embedded assistance—from the perspective of an inductive interface. Doris Holloway describes the universal experience of designing without access to users and reveals how her team worked with the problem to achieve success. Garett Dworman likewise describes a familiar experience: negotiating and arbitrating the competing interests and demands of all parties contributing to a product design. Sachin Patil and Kay Howell discuss the pros and cons of a learning tool that, though tested in a game environment, has wider potential applications.

I think you'll find a common thread in these provocative and enlightening articles. Together, they reiterate the value of working as partners with sales and marketing, internal and external customers, design, development, test, and implementation of any of the products that we create.

I thank every one of the contributors to this section, and everyone who submitted an article that we couldn't fit in. I also thank Andrea Ames, information architect and strategist at IBM and past president of STC, for her help and support.

If you have any thoughts on the contents of this section, please share them with me at, or with the editors-in-chief at We'd like to hear from you.

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Fred Sampson
IBM's Silicon Valley Lab

About the Guest Editor:
Fred Sampson is an information developer for the Content Management and Discovery team at IBM's Silicon Valley Lab, where he helps user experience designers create self-documenting user interfaces; he dreams of growing up to be an information architect. Fred is a senior member of the Society for Technical Communication, past president of the Silicon Valley Community of STC, and vice-president for finance of ACM SIGCHI. Fred has an MA in English from UCLA. He writes the Pushing the Envelope column for <interactions> and a blog at Contact Fred at

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©2007 ACM  1072-5220/07/0100  $5.00

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