Software User Assistance is one of those phrases created in the modern information age to describe both the process of developing information to support software users and the information itself. Software user assistance has many names, online help being the best known and most commonly accessed from any software program by pressing the F1 key on a keyboard.
In a former age, technical writers created printed documentation for software users. You remember those multiple, large volumes of instructions that required a big shipping box to hold them. These manuals invariably sat for years on your office bookshelf, often unopened and unread. If you did read them, you would probably jump right to the index and hope to find something useful. Then with the aid of newer, more robust authoring tools, we added online help to the mix of user assistance outputs. Online help provided software users with a dedicated window of content, context-sensitive to the software function you were currently using. The great thing about online help was that it allowed content to be driven by the needs of the user; hyperlinks connected related topics of information in a non-linear structure. The advent of modern documentation tools allowed us to produce printed and online outputs from a single source of information, and provide a more dynamic online help experience. The Internet has provided for an even richer user experience, allowing for dynamic information updates and a variety of information formats and presentations, including more and better images and video. More recently, the explosion of social media has given our users the ability to contribute to the documentation through the use of information feedback and sharing.
Technical writers are the traditional authors of software user assistance, but technical writing is only one of the skills now required to write good software documentation. These days, software user assistance skills can now include technical writing, user interface design and usability, editing, project planning, coding, indexing, testing, localization and standards.
Today, software user assistance is a very broad term and encompasses any and all content provided to users to help them get the most of the software that you have sold them. And it is a critical part of your user’s experience.