Wednesday Oct 05, 2011

Designing Mobile Enterprise Applications User Assistance: 10 Points to Consider

Here are design considerations to optimize the mobile enterprise applications user assistance. These considerations are based on Oracle Applications User Experience research into mobile user assistance, ethnography, and context of use. Understanding mobile app users' profiles and the mobile context--and how it differs from the desktop--is critical to delivering a successful overall user experience.

1. Forget the notion of porting over documentation manuals in any form to mobile devices. Users on the move do not have time to read such content. How the mobile app communicates with users must reflect a world of changing location, frequent disruption, and the need to complete tasks rapidly or to maybe revisit them later when time, social circumstance, or information availability changes.  Brent White's blog entry on mobile design principles will help you focus on how design must reflect the mobile user context.

2. Pay close attention to the language in the app UI. Language drives user action. If a term requires explanation to users then it's probably the wrong term. Explaining terminology slows down users and wastes valuable real estate in the UI.

Generally, web-based mobile apps terminology can follow the desktop version, while native apps can use the familiar terms provided by their platform. Test any new terminology along with interactions before you release the app.

The style of language (formal, casual, and so on) must reflect the user profile. Check out these excellent mobile international style guides from Microsoft for examples.

3. Avoid writing procedural user help about the task flow. If such usability isn't intuitive, then the app usability has failed. A quick first-run only orientation to new feature functionality is all that's needed in terms on onboard assistance for mobile apps, along with some basic instruction around areas that might not be often used, such as settings or configuration.

LinkedIn and iPhone user assistance

Full screen overlays or component popups can act as a modal barrier to task completion, slowing down users working under pressure. Use inline information instead.

Google search help on mobile

4. Eliminate errors by affirmations in advance, using placeholder text showing examples of data format, usage intention and so on (check out the HTML5 placeholder types for examples, and native device apps can offer similar features). Allowing users to quickly enter numeric, date or other data in the format they want and then seamlessly converting it to the accepted storage format is also the way to go. See the Oracle Application Development Framework (ADF) Trinidad converter demos for the idea.

5. Allow users to complete fields on the screen in any order they like, and then perform a validation on final action rather than validating each field one by one and slowing down task completion.

Validate data input on the device before submission to the server, saving on round tripping time from the mobile device if you can. Use those validation or conversion features to speed up the entire task completion process, reflecting a mental model of users knowing their data entry is valid on the mobile device rather than hoping it was on the server.

6. Inline placement for messages for task-completion errors and confirmation messages is best as this approach doesn't block access to the page or disrupt the user too much if they want to complete another task from the same page. Dialog boxes are still best for those critical issues, however (at this point, the user action has already stopped).

Inline versus dialog box message

7. Show the message clearly with distinct visual indicators and near the point of the error (see the ADF Trinidad demo on messages for an example). Different types of messages (error, warnings, or confirmations, for example) require different visual indicators and styling so that users can learn the intent of each type quickly and also rely on such visual indicators elsewhere without the benefit of reading the message text too.

8. Centralized lists of messages in a notifications center are the way to go for sure, but allow users to control which ones they want to see and when. Android does a great job on notifications, but Apple’s iOS5 looks set to create a new standard in mobile notifications and their personalization (the following screens are from pre-released software).

Apple iOS 5 notifications center

9. Choice of content for messages may vary depending on what application functionality is available or regional user preference even. For example, our research into expense report submission confirmation messages, revealed that US and UK-based mobile app users wanted to see the word successful in the message (indicating the task was completed as intended), though UK-based users were less adamant about the word. UK users preferred to have more details of transaction objects in the message content (for example, the expense report and amount), whereas US users preferred a simpler message without all the details. So, how do you resolve such differences?

Expenses confirmation message text alternatives

A difficult question to answer without access to the entire task flow or application features, but in this case, let context win out over consistency. Include the word successful, as users want to be assured that their task is done. Although only one word, it shapes their perception of what has happened. Are users on the move likely to remember all the expense details anyway after they dismiss the message? Probably not. So, allow users to refer back to a notifications center that reminds shows that the action was successful and all relevant transaction details as well as further activity around the transaction (approval, deposit of reimbursement, and so on).

10. What about audio, sound, or vibrate options as messaging for mobile app activity? These options can be offered as a personalization feature if your development effort can afford it, but don't expect a whole ton of usage uptake right now. Auditory messages can be ill timed for sure depending on the context. Who wants to receive a message like this during a business meeting?

Informational messages can always be recalled from a centralized notifications list, as they frequently don't demand immediate response. This is superior from showing them suddenly on the page during transaction completion, disrupting the current activity anyway.

As for SMS (text messaging) used for application confirmations, sure, such a personalization option can be considered, but as a lower priority, as there may be security issues at stake in an enterprise environment. Functionality that enables users to see confirmations from a centralized notifications center and to take any follow up actions arising from that location (for example, knowing when an expense report is approved) allows for more efficient working.

You may have other considerations. If so, then find the comments. To explore this area further, don’t forget to check out Marta Rauch's (@martarauch) presentation at LavaCon 2011 on mobile user assistance usability guidelines.

Sunday May 08, 2011

Stand Up for Comics

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

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?

Copyright. The Manga Guide to Databases (Paperback) by Mana Takahashi, Shoko Azuma

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.

Tuesday Mar 29, 2011

Applications User Experience User Assistance at CHI 2011

Delighted to say team members Erika Webb, Ray Matsil, and Jeff Sauro have a case study on The Benefit Analysis of User Assistance Improvements  in CHI 2011. You can check out more details of this and the other Oracle contributions to CHI 2011 on the usableapps website.

Great job everyone!

Monday Mar 07, 2011

Community Conversation

Applications User Experience members (Erika Webb, Laurie Pattison, and I) attended the User Assistance Europe Conference in Stockholm, Sweden. We were impressed with the thought leadership and practical application of ideas in Anne Gentle's keynote address "Social Web Strategies for Documentation". After the conference, we spoke with Anne to explore the ideas further.

annegentle4.jpg

Applications User Experience Senior Director Laurie Pattison (left) with Anne Gentle at the User Assistance Europe Conference

In Anne's book called Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation, she explains how user assistance is undergoing a seismic shift. The direction is away from the old print manuals and online help concept towards a web-based, user community-driven solution using social media tools.

User experience professionals now have a vast range of such tools to start and nurture this "conversation": blogs, wikis, forums, social networking sites, microblogging systems, image and video sharing sites, virtual worlds, podcasts, instant messaging, mashups, and so on.

That user communities are a rich source of user assistance is not a surprise, but the extent of available assistance is. For example, we know from the Consortium for Service Innovation that there has been an 'explosion' of user-generated content on the web. User-initiated community conversations provide as much as 30 times the number of official help desk solutions for consortium members!

The growing reliance on user community solutions is clearly a user experience issue. Anne says that user assistance as conversation "means getting closer to users and helping them perform well. User-centered design has been touted as one of the most important ideas developed in the last 20 years of workplace writing. Now writers can take the idea of user-centered design a step further by starting conversations with users and enabling user assistance in interactions."

Some of Anne's favorite examples of this paradigm shift from the world of traditional documentation to community conversation include:

bob_bringhurst.png

Adobe Writer Bob Bringhurst's Blog

Oracle is not without a user community conversation too. Besides the "community discussions and blogs around documentation offerings, we have the My Oracle Support Community forums, Oracle Technology Network  (OTN) communities, wiki, blogs, and so on. We have the great work done by our user groups and customer councils. Employees like David Haimes are reaching out, and enthusiastic non-employee gurus like Chet Justice (OracleNerd), Floyd Teter and Eddie Awad provide great "how-to" information too.

But what does this paradigm shift mean for existing technical writers as users turn away from the traditional printable PDF manual deliverables? We asked Anne after the conference. The writer role becomes one of conversation initiator or enabler. The role evolves, along with the process, as the users define their concept of user assistance and terms of engagement with the product instead of having it pre-determined. It is largely a case now of "inventing the job while you're doing it, instead of being hired for it" Anne said. There is less emphasis on formal titles. Anne mentions that her own title "Content Stacker" at OpenStack; others use titles such as "Content Curator" or "Community Lead". However, the role remains one essentially about communications, "but of a new type--interacting with users, moderating, curating content, instead of sitting down to write a manual from start to finish."

Clearly then, this role is open to more than professional technical writers. Product managers who write blogs, developers who moderate forums, support professionals who update wikis, rock star programmers with a penchant for YouTube are ideal. Anyone with the product knowledge, empathy for the user, and flair for relationships on the social web can join in. Some even perform these roles already but do not realize it. Anne feels the technical communicator space will move from hiring new community conversation professionals (who are already active in the space through blogging, tweets, wikis, and so on) to retraining some existing writers over time. Our own research reveals that the established proponents of community user assistance even set employee performance objectives for internal content curators about the amount of community content delivered by people outside the organization!

To take advantage of the conversations on the web as user assistance, enterprises must first establish where on the spectrum their community lies. "What is the line between community willingness to contribute and the enterprise objectives?" Anne asked. "The relationship with users must be managed and also measured." Anne believes that the process can start with a "just do it" approach. Begin by reaching out to existing user groups, individual bloggers and tweeters, forum posters, early adopter program participants, conference attendees, customer advisory board members, and so on. Use analytical tools to measure the level of conversation about your products and services to show a return on investment (ROI), winning management support.

Anne emphasized that success with the community model is dependent on lowering the technical and motivational barriers so that users can readily contribute to the conversation. Simple tools must be provided, and guidelines, if any, must be straightforward but not mandatory. The conversational approach is one where traditional style and branding guides do not necessarily apply. Tools and infrastructure help users to create content easily, to search and find the information online, read it, rate it, translate it, and participate further in the content's evolution. Recognizing contributors by using ratings on forums, giving out Twitter kudos, conference invitations, visits to headquarters, free products, preview releases, and so on, also encourages the adoption of the conversation model.

The move to conversation as user assistance is not free, but there is a business ROI. The conversational model means that customer service is enhanced, as user experience moves from a functional to a valued, emotional level. Studies show a positive correlation between loyalty and financial performance (Consortium for Service Innovation, 2010), and as customer experience and loyalty become key differentiators, user experience professionals cannot explore the model's possibilities.

The digital universe (measured at 1.2 million petabytes in 2010) is doubling every 12 to 18 months, and 70 percent of that universe consists of user-generated content (IDC, 2010). Conversation as user assistance cannot be ignored but must be embraced. It is a time to manage for abundance, not scarcity. Besides, the conversation approach certainly sounds more interesting, rewarding, and fun than the traditional model!

I would like to thank Anne for her time and thoughts, and recommend that all user assistance professionals read her book. You can follow Anne on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/annegentle.

Sunday Jan 30, 2011

Warnings When Undo Isn't Possible

Enjoyed this post Never Use a Warning When you Mean Undo  by Aza Raskin. It makes sense never to warn users if an undo option is possible. The examples given are from the web space. Here's the conclusion:

Warnings cause us to lose our work, to mistrust our computers, and to blame ourselves. A simple but foolproof design methodology solves the problem: "Never use a warning when you mean undo." And when a user is deleting their work, you always mean undo.

However, in enterprise apps you may find that an undo option isn't technically possible or desirable. Objects may be shared with other users or part of a flow elsewhere, for example. Undoing an action on an object committed to the database (a rollback I guess), as opposed to just being cached or saved, or on an object that has become locked by another process isn't feasible. Plus, what might happen to a modified object when it moves downstream in the process isn't always obvious. So, the implications of delete (and other) actions need to be clearly communicated to users in advance. So, warnings are important in the enterprise space. Data has a very high value, and users can perform a wide variety of actions that may risk that data, not always within the application itself (at browser level, for example). That said, throwing warnings all over the place when an undo option is possible is annoying. Instead, treat warnings with respect. When there is no undo option possible, use warning messages to communicate potentially dangerous or irrecoverable actions or the downstream consequences of user actions on the process or task flow. Force the user to respond to a warning message by using a modal dialog with clearly labeled action buttons. Here's a couple of examples:

warning_records.png
warning_navigate2.png

But what about mobile apps? I don't recall seeing undo options in apps, which can be frustrating as objects can be easily deleted by an accidental finger gesture (as anyone who has accidentally removed an account from an app--or indeed at entire app--on an iPhone will tell you). Warnings are very important there too for irrecoverable actions.

android_mobile_warning.png

A great article that got me thinking. Let's see more articles like that. And let's not forget there's more types of messages than just error messages. User assistance and user experience professionals need to understand when best to use confirmation, information, and warning types too.

Sunday Nov 14, 2010

A Conversational Style

I've been reading a superb paper called "Engaging Diverse Audiences With Screencasts, Wikis, and Blogs", written by Gail Chappell and Cindy Church of Oracle. While they were with Sun Microsystems, Gail and Cindy presented the paper at the 2008 STC Summit:.

The paper is rich in ideas for anyone interested in the community user assistance model--I'll return to that subject later--but their thoughts on adopting a conversational style really struck home:  

For the blog and the wiki, however, the writing was less formal and more folksy--we used our own writing style and own voices. We did not strictly follow the editorial style guidelines, nor did we pass the wiki or blog content to an editor. However, we did adhere to our company's branding requirements and blog guidelines.  

The blog was a good place for us to use a conversational style, as we frequently engaged in conversations with our readers. In fact, we were on a first-name basis with many who regularly read the blog. We also used the more conversational style when responding to customers who used the feedback mechanism in our tutorials and screencasts.

JavaFX Blog article on animations

Complete common sense. A conversational writing style that talks with users rather than at them or to them. We'd do well to follow this user-centred design approach to language in all of our blog and wiki efforts. And, what better way to change the antideluvian "say Web site, not website" mentality than harnessing the voice of the community too.

If you can get your hands on Cindy and Gail's paper and presentation through your local STC chapter (and internal Oracle employees should be able to get a later update too), I think you'll find it's well worth reading.

Friday Oct 15, 2010

The Community Support Explosion

Not convinced of the power of community support, eh? Then I urge you to check out this presentation from Greg Oxton of the Consortium for Service Innovation (CSI). Incredible. A very important statement about why enterprises need to be aware of--and harness--the power of their user communities.

csi_community_support.png
(Image copyright CSI 2010) Oracle is a member of the CSI.
About

Oracle applications user experience (UX) assistance. UX and development outreach of all sorts to the apps community, helping to design and deliver usable apps.

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Ultan Ó Broin. Director, Global Applications User Experience, Oracle Corporation. On Twitter: @ultan

See my other Oracle blog about product globalization too: Not Lost in Translation

Interests: User experience (UX), user centered design, design patterns, tailoring, BYOD, dev relations, language quality, mobile apps, Oracle FMW and ADF, and a lot more.

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