Mention comics as a form of user assistance and you might think it's some kind of exercise in comedy. However, as pointed out by Rebekah Sedaca in her super article, comics are not just for laughs. Over the past couple of years there's been a huge interest in the use of comics as UA. How encouraging to see comics guru and evangelist Scott McCloud (@scottmccloud) as keynote speaker at the CMS DITA North America 2011 conference, an indicator of how seriously comics are now being taken by information development professionals.
Comics are an important form of visual communication, the possibilities of which are often underplayed by some in the UA community (usually because they mistakenly believe you need special skills to create them). Comics offer a graphically powerful and meaningful way to tell users about new features, best practices, concepts (see this great SlideShare presentation by Kevin Cheng and Jane Jao of Yahoo!), policies, and more. Alan J. Porter (@4JsGroup) offers a useful plain language definition for this form of communication: A graphic medium in which images are utilized in order to convey a sequential narrative. Importantly, the comic also conveys its message in a way that readers will recognize and relate to on a different level than other forms of help.
Increasingly, we're learning that effective UA must be affective. The UA must not only be contextual and relevant to the reader's task, representing real world examples, but it must strike a chord with them emotionally and personally. There are important returns when that happens: increased transfer of information, learning, and a great way to reinforce corporate culture, nurture enterprise and branding loyalty, and other benefits. Comics are one such form of UA.
Comics are, as Kevin Cheng says, a "universal language", a true user-centered form of communication design that can be classed as another form of "affective user assistance" as explained by Ellis Pratt (@ellispratt) of Cherryleaf in this great YouTube video about documentation as an emotional experience for users from TCUK 2010. Don Norman would be proud!
There are plenty of different examples of comics as UA that I could point out to you. You're probably familiar with the Google Chrome comic (adapted for Google by Scott McCloud). As Scott explained in his CMS DITA keynote the comic was "amplification by simplification." Engineers at Google really wanted people to understand their work, rather than be distracted by media focus on the corporation.
Words by the Google Chrome team, comics adaptation by Scott McCloud. Image licensed under creative commons Google.com
Or perhaps you've seen the Oatmeal's use of comics to explain a superior UX for shopping carts? But, how about this fine manga ( 漫画) example tackling the area of RDBMS?
Image copyright acknowledged from amazon.com for The Manga Guide to Databases (Paperback) by Mana Takahashi, Shoko Azuma
Who'd a thunk? (Japanese language version is here - h/t @taksasak.) Thanks to Debra Lilley(@debralilley) for that one.
The comics approach can also offer opportunities for combinations with other forms of information. In come cases we've seen customers and partners combine them with other UA formats such as UPK demos, and I just love this er, non-Oracle example of a cartoon/video delivery.
By the way, you don't need special skills to create comics for user assistance. If you're interested in giving comics a test run yourself, check out the Visio template distributed by Rebekah Sedaca or the http://www.makebeliefscomix.com/ website. Give it a shot. Remember, comics can make you a better communicator.