User Assistance Europe 2011 was held in Brighton, UK. Having seen Quadrophenia a dozen times, I just had to go along (OK, I wanted to talk about messages in enterprise applications). Sadly, it rained a lot, though that was still eminently more tolerable than being stuck home in Dublin during Bloomsday. So, here are my somewhat selective highlights and observations from the conference, massively skewed towards my own interests, as usual.
Enjoyed Leah Guren's (Cow TC) great start ‘keynote’ on the Cultural Dimensions of Software Help Usage. Starting out by revisiting Hofstede's and Hall's work on culture (how many times I have done this for Multilingual magazine?) and then Neilsen’s findings on age as an indicator of performance, Leah showed how it is the expertise of the user that user assistance (UA) needs to be designed for (especially for high-end users), with some considerations made for age, while the gender and culture of users are not major factors. Help also needs to be contextual and concise, embedded close to the action. That users are saying things like “If I want help on Office, I go to Google ” isn't all that profound at this stage, but it is always worth reiterating how search can be optimized to return better results for users. Interestingly, regardless of user education level, the issue of information quality--hinging on the lynchpin of terminology reflecting that of the user--is critical. Major takeaway for me there.
Matthew Ellison’s sessions on embedded help and demos were also impressive. Embedded help that is concise and contextual is definitely a powerful UX enabler, and I’m pleased to say that in Oracle Fusion Applications we have embraced the concept fully.
Matthew also mentioned in his session about successful software demos that the principle of modality with demos is a must. Look no further than Oracle User Productivity Kit demos See It!, Try It!, Know It, and Do It! modes, for example.
I also found some key takeaways in the presentation by Marie-Louise Flacke on notes and warnings. Here, legal considerations seemed to take precedence over providing any real information to users. I was delighted when Marie-Louise called out the Oracle JDeveloper documentation as an exemplar of how to use notes and instructions instead of trying to scare the bejaysus out of people and not providing them with any real information they’d find useful instead.
My own session on designing messages for enterprise applications was well attended. Knowing your user profiles (remember user expertise is the king maker for UA so write for each audience involved), how users really work, the required application business and UI rules, what the application technology exception handling framework does, and how messages integrate with the enterprise help desk and support policies will take you much further than relying solely on the guideline of "writing messages in plain language".
And, remember the value in warnings and confirmation messages too, and how you can use them smartly. Messages are not just about errors.
I hope y’all got something from my presentation and from my answers to questions afterwards.
Ellis Pratt (Cherryleaf, a technical authoring company in the UK) stole the show with his presentation on applying game theory to software UA, using plenty of colorful, relevant examples (check out the Atlassian and DropBox approaches, for example), and striking just the right balance between theory and practice. Completely agree that the approach to take here is not to make UA itself a game, but to invoke UA as part of a bigger game dynamic (time-to-task completion, personal and communal goals, personal achievement and status, and so on). Sure there are gotchas and limitations to gamification, and we need to do more research. However, we'll hear a lot more about this subject in coming years, particularly in the enterprise space. I hope.
I also heard good things about the different sessions about DITA usage (including one by Sonja Fuga that clearly opens the door for major innovation in the community content space using WordPress), the progressive disclosure of information (Cerys Willoughby), an overview of controlled language (or "information quality", as I like to position it) solutions and rationale by Dave Gash, and others.
I also spent time chatting with Mike Hamilton of MadCap Software, who showed me a cool demo of their Flare product, and the Lingo translation solution. I liked the idea of their licensing model for workers-on-the-go; that’s smart UX-awareness in itself. Also chatted with Julian Murfitt of Mekon about uptake of DITA in the enterprise space.
In all, it's worth attending UA Europe. I was surprised, however, not to see conference topics about mobile UA, community conversation and content, and search in its own right. These are unstoppable forces now, and the latter is pretty central to providing assistance now to all but the most irredentist of hard-copy fetishists or advanced technical or functional users working away on the back end of applications and systems. Only saw one iPad too (says the guy who carries three laptops). Tweeting during the conference was pretty much nonexistent during the event, so no community energy there. Perhaps all this can be addressed next year. I would love to see the next UA Europe event come to Dublin (despite Bloomsday, it's not a bad place place, really) now that hotels are so cheap and all.
So, what is my overall impression of the state of user assistance in Europe? Clearly, there are still many people in the industry who feel there is something broken with the traditional forms of user assistance (particularly printed doc) and something needs to be done about it. I would suggest they move on and try and embrace change, instead.
Many others see new possibilities, offered by UX and technology, as well as the reality of online user behavior in an increasingly connected world and that is encouraging. Such thought leaders need to be listened to. As Ellis Pratt of Cherryleaf says in his great book, Trends in Technical Communication - Rethinking Help: “To stay relevant means taking a new perspective on the role (of technical writer), and delivering “products” over and above the traditional manual and online Help file... there are a number of new trends in this field - some complementary, some conflicting. Whatever trends emerge as the norm, it’s likely the status quo will change.” It already has, IMO.
I hear similar debates in the professional translation world about the onset of translation crowd sourcing (the Facebook model) and machine translation (trust me, that battle is over). Neither of these initiatives has put anyone out of a job and probably won't, though the nature of the work might change. If anything, such innovations have increased the overall need for professional translators as user expectations rise, new audiences emerge, and organizations need to collate and curate user-generated content, combining it with their own. Perhaps user assistance professionals can learn from other professions and grow accordingly.