These days, user assistance comes in many forms. We still produce traditional sources of assistance for our customers in the form of sequentially organized printable user manuals and online help systems. But web-based assistance – that is, content that is viewed in a web browser – has become more and more common, and not just for web-based applications.
Go to any website that sells any product. Many will feature “online help” that appears directly on the web page when a customer clicks a link or a menu command. This kind of web-based help is often quite effective when displayed in its own panel or other type of container directly on the page. A single click gives the user access to the correct information exactly when he or she needs it, rather than forcing the user to go dig around in some 500-page PDF manual or click around in an external help system. And we’re all familiar with the ubiquitous Frequently Asked Questions pages at our favorite online shopping hangout.
Then there are web-based software applications, which often provide different kinds of user assistance. While an external help system remains a traditional solution to user assistance for web-based apps, including in-depth procedural and conceptual information, this type of system does have some drawbacks. For example, it sits outside of the application itself and a user must take multiple steps to find the right information, removing their focus from the task at hand in the application. Testing consistently finds that most users do not use the help system at all after failing once to find relevant information.
The best way to provide user assistance for web-based application is to embed the information directly in the application user interface. Finding answers to questions in embedded user assistance takes almost no effort – the information is usually right there on the screen, or appears directly on the screen with a single, obvious click. Again, testing consistently finds that users are more likely to use embedded help than an external help system.
The lesson here? Web-used user assistance is preferable to external help systems, or at the very least, should be the first line of defense for a confused user.