Online Help Writer

On Writing – Please Don’t Say Please

Posted by | blog writer, freelance writer, On Writing, online help, Online Help Writer | No Comments

One of my biggest writing pet peeves is the overuse of the word “please” in application instructions both onscreen and in the online help.

In heavily regulated industries, such as financial services, specifications for new software features often start out as legal documents responding to new or changing regulations. In rapid software development environments without well-established workflows, these legal documents quickly become product specs. Lawyers love to be polite in their writing. Please do this, please do that, and so on and so on.

Without the constant presence of a writer in the development process, programmers will copy and paste text from the spec written by the attorneys directly into the code. I don’t blame them – they’re not writers.

Software developers may also fancy themselves to be writers. I have seen this trait among programmers who are non-native English speakers. Using the word “please” is part of a more formal written English, and it’s not unexpected that non-native English speaking programmers who were taught formal English would use this writing style. I don’t blame them – if that’s how I was taught to write, I would do the same thing.

However, the end result of both of these scenarios is an application user interface littered with extra words. Please enter your information in the fields below. Please click here. Please send your completed form to the following address.

Please STOP!!

Look, it’s not that I want to be rude. In actual human interaction, I am always polite and respectful. But using a software application or reading information on a screen is a completely different situation. Users are busy and impatient and don’t like to read. The software doesn’t have to be so polite, it just has to get to the point.

As a writer, my job is to communicate the most useful information in the most efficient and user-friendly manner. My job is to get to the point. The word “please” is completely unnecessary and indeed, every extra word on screen has the potential to reduce usability.

So please – don’t say please in your writing.

Help for Mobile Apps – ArtStudio on My Cell Phone

Posted by | mobile user assistance, online help, Online Help Writer, Software User Assistance, technical documentation in Greenwich CT, technical writing | No Comments

Now that I’m back from vacation, I’m continuing my investigation into the online help/user assistance for some of my favorite apps on my Apple iPhone 4S. In my previous post, I looked at the user assistance for my banking app. In this post, I’m taking a look at my favorite art creation/editing app – ArtStudio by Lucky Clan.

ArtStudio advertises itself as a “comprehensive, sketching, painting and photo editing tool,” and it is certainly that. You can create pictures from scratch or import them from the photos on your phone. The app includes numerous image creation and modification tools that you would normally expect in such an application, including the ability to vary brush sizes, color, create different layers, adjust different characteristics of an image, and much more. It really is a great little app.

But how does the online help stack up? Once again, I’m asking the following questions:

  • When using the app, when do I need help?
  • How do I find the help?
  • When I find it, does it actually help me?

The answer to the first question, when do I need help, depends on how much experience I already have using art applications. Somebody who has experience using programs such as Adobe Photoshop on their computer will likely be familiar with many of the tools and features in ArtStudio and will know why they might want to use them when creating and modifying images. For example, I already know what a layer is, and I know why I would need to vary the size of a brush or other similar tool, and my beginner-to-intermediate Photoshop experience lets me quickly identify many of the tools available in ArtStudio. Still, using these tools on my iPhone or even on a tablet for that matter is different because of the smaller workspace available on these devices. Yes, I will still need help, but mostly with finding tools and options in the user interface.

A beginner will not only need help finding tools and options in the user interface but will also need to learn how to use them.

So where is the help in ArtStudio?

Like many new cell phone apps, this one conforms to some modern default behavior. Most everything you might be looking for is located in a menu, and the menus are easily accessed by tapping the familiar three horizontal lines symbol located in the upper left corner of the screen. From the main menu, there is no Help item, but there IS an item called ArtStudio. Lo and behold, when you tap ArtStudio in the menu, you get another menu, and this one has several items related to user assistance. So two taps got me to a menu with links to the User’s Manual, FAQs and Tutorials. That’s not too bad, although a less inquisitive user might not think to look in ArtStudio on the main menu.

artstudio1

And now we get to the third question: when I find the help, does it actually help me? Again, the answer depends somewhat on what kind of user I am.

A beginner with little or no experience using a image creation program would be tempted to go straight to the Tutorials. So I tapped Tutorials on the menu and a tutorial index page opened in my cell phone browser.

artstudio2

The Tutorials seem a little peculiar to me in that I expected to see some basic tasks presented, but not all the tutorials are labeled as such. There are a couple of video tutorials that show you how to create a caricature; when you click the tutorial link, a YouTube video launches. If you like learning by video, this is a good choice as the video does demonstrate how to complete several basic tasks. However, the person in the video is using the tablet version of ArtStudio and is also using a tablet pen. A keen observer might be able to transfer the information presented in the video to his or her cell phone app, but that’s a bit of a stretch. Personally, I don’t like video tutorials because I like to work along with the tutorial, and you can’t really do that with a video unless you constantly start and stop. But that may just be my own preference.

The other tutorials are not videos but are fairly useful combinations of screenshots and procedure steps. Unfortunately, these ArtStudio tutorials do not cover many of the basics of using the application, and I feel that they are lacking in this regard.

artstudio3

So the Tutorials are less than ideally useful on my cell phone.

Let’s get back to our ArtStudio menu and take a look at the User’s Manual. When you click the Users’ Manual menu, a 45-page PDF file opens in my cell phone browser.

artstudio4

Now here’s the good part – the entire manual is 100% graphic-based instruction based on task and consist of images with callouts. I had to enlarge the page to be able to really see the images on my phone, but I find this type of instruction the most useful. (Note that you can also view it the User’s Manual PDF on your desktop computer or tablet on lucky clan’s website for a larger, more readable view.)

artstudio5

Now here’s the bad part – this guide was created for the tablet version of ArtStudio, NOT the cell phone version. The images depict the program’s menus along the top of the screen, but in the cell phone app, the menus are vertically arranged on the left side of the screen. But how bad is this really? The phone app works pretty much the same way as the tablet app, and the menus are identical except for their location. The dialogs and controls are the same between the two versions.

I really like the User’s Manual because it is entirely image-based, but it doesn’t really teach you how to use the program, it just familiarizes you with the tools and options that are available and how to access them. Once again, for a person like me who has used this type of program before, that’s really all I need. For a beginner, it would not be enough. Still, I wish all software programs included this kind of documentation.

To summarize, the help for ArtStudio is better for more experienced users and is really designed for the tablet version of the app. The company obviously did not feel it necessary to produce a cell phone-specific user’s manual, and given the fact that this type of program is better suited to the larger screen size of a tablet than a cell phone, this may not have been a bad choice.

Help for Mobile Apps – The Banking App on My Cell Phone

Posted by | mobile user assistance, online help, Online Help Writer, Software User Assistance, technical documentation in Greenwich CT | No Comments

Smart mobile phones are truly a wonderful invention. They’ve made almost every aspect of our daily lives more convenient (and isolating, but that’s a different subject), and have put enormous amounts of both useful and (useless) information at our fingertips. There are now mobile phone applications – apps – for virtually everything. There are apps for banking and investing, apps for creating art and editing photos, apps for all kinds of games, apps for news and information, apps for creating music, apps for traveling, apps for finding restaurants, apps for buying movie tickets, and of course apps for dating. And the list goes on. Whew!

As a writer of information designed to help end users have the best possible experience using a software program and as a user myself, I am keenly interested in how to get assistance when using mobile apps. To that end, I’ve taken a look at some of my favorite apps on my own phone, an Apple iPhone 4S, to see how the online help or user assistance stacks up. I wasn’t sure what I would find out, but it turned out to be a very interesting investigation.

My Online Banking App

I’ll admit it – I hate waiting in lines, especially at my bank. Just drives me crazy. The advent of online banking has really been a positive force in my life as it allows me to avoid those dreaded Saturday morning lines.

The first app that I looked at on my phone was the online banking app for my own bank. As part of my investigation into the user assistance for my banking app, I asked myself the following questions:

  • When using the app, when do I need online help?

  • How do I find the online help?

  • When I find the online help, does it actually help me?

My own bank’s mobile app allows me to do many things, including check my account balances and recent transactions, transfer funds between accounts, pay bills online, arrange for a check deposit and even find locations of different branches. Pretty basic stuff.

The answer to the first question, when do I need help, is simple – not very often. This app is simple to use and conforms to most of the de facto user interface standards for mobile apps. For example, after I log into my account from the opening screen, I get a summary of my account balances (which I won’t show you here because it’s frankly none of your business). On that screen, I see a now familiar three horizontal lines symbol.  I’ve seen this symbol everywhere in mobile apps so by now, I suspect that tapping on it will display something, probably a menu. I tap the symbol and voila!  A menu slides in from the left.

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The menu gives me access to all the different functions available in the app, and even includes a link to Help, thereby answering my second question, how do I find the online help. I tap Help on the menu.

image_1

Ah, now here’s some useful information. Apparently I can get help about any screen in the app simply by tapping the screen title. The instruction for this is simple and to the point. There are no images, nor are there any really necessary, in my opinion.

I have two complaints about this. One, I have to know to tap Help on the side menu to learn this trick. Two, I subsequently discovered that this is the ONLY help available from the side menu. You actually DO have to tap a screen title to get help for that screen. It’s the only way to get context-sensitive help. I would never have thought to tap the page title as that is not quite standard mobile user interface behavior. But in this case, this help topic available on the menu does teach me how to get help in the rest of the app and so is quite useful. The answer to my third question –  when I find help, does it help me? – would have to be yes.

So now that I’ve learned how to access help in the rest of the app, I was eager to try it out. I tapped the three horizontal lines symbol again to display the menu, and then I tapped Transfers.

On the Transfers screen, I tapped the screen title and lo and behold, a help topic opened.

image_2
As shown in the above screen, the help is very simple. It’s written with a fair minimum of text. While I could scroll down within the help screen, there was no reason to do so because there was only the simple content shown above.

In terms of writing style, I personally would advocate less text. First, I would have omitted the lead-in sentence “In the Transfer form….” because the Transfers screen only HAS the single form. It’s extra words that I don’t need. And if I wanted to get really picky, I would have omitted “the” from bullet text. You can get away with “Enter transfer amount.” without the article “the” although the Transfer From and Transfer To bullet text seems clunky without the article.

Finally, I can easily close the help screen by tapping the encircled X symbol, another standard of user interface design.

That concludes my investigation into the mobile online help for my own banking app. The next article will take a look at the online help for a mobile art app that I use. Why not take a look at the mobile user assistance for your own banking app and see how it stacks up?

Editing and Proofreading from CohenWrite in Greenwich CT

Posted by | editing, freelance technical writer, mobile user assistance, Online Help Writer, proofreading, Software User Assistance, technical documentation in Greenwich CT, technical writing | No Comments

In today’s business environment, urgency is often the primary motivator behind new product releases, especially in the software and mobile application development realms. In the rush to be the first to market with the latest and greatest, important steps are often skipped in the process. Editing and proofreading of written supporting material such as end user documentation, marketing copy and even press releases are steps that I’ve seen skipped or at best, hurried through. The result is a product that might look unfinished to many, and that’s no way to hit the market with your great new product.

CohenWrite offers more than 25 years of experience proofreading and editing, and we always deliver when you need it. Let us put that professional final touch onto your written material, including technical documentation, web content, software user assistance, mobile user assistance and more.

Writing for Mobile Apps in Greenwich, CT – The Importance of Great Online Help for Mobile Apps

Posted by | mobile user assistance, Online Help Writer, Software User Assistance, technical documentation in Greenwich CT, writing services in Greenwich CT | No Comments

It’s no secret that the world has moved to mobile communications in a big way. This not only includes telephone and text messaging, but also an growing variety of applications from gaming and social media to productivity and shopping. Like their older cousins in the desktop and web-based universes, these new apps have been captivating the public and will continue to do so. And just like traditional software applications, the importance of user assistance cannot be overstated.

How popular and widespread is mobile usage? Consider the following data:

  • Out of more than seven billion people living on the planet, there are now estimated to be over six billion people with mobile subscriptions. 
  • 50% of the average global mobile web users now use their mobile devices as their primary means of getting online.
  • The average person actively uses 6.5 apps in a 30-day period.
  • 80% of mobile time is spent using apps.

Those are pretty amazing numbers. They point to very logical conclusion that mobile apps aren’t going away. In fact, their use will only increase as the technology becomes more advanced and visually dazzling.

However, as the use of mobile apps continues to increase, the need for on-the-spot, efficient and useful user assistance  will also increase. So people will continue to need help using these new and wonderful mobile apps, whether for phone or tablet.

I’ve taken a good look at the help available for the apps that I use on my own mobile devices and I’ve found them mostly wanting. Generally it seems to me that mobile help is often an afterthought. In the rush to go “mobile” and be early to market, companies typically consider mobile help last, if at all. Interestingly, we never seem to learn from the past; when software applications first appeared on desktop computers, the help was often lacking in completeness, accessibility and usability.

So what’s wrong with today’s mobile help?

  • A lot of is not specifically designed for mobile use. Help authoring tools are now offering export features that allow existing online help, designed for desktop or web-based applications, to be ported to a format that can be displayed on a mobile device.
  • It’s not visual enough. There’s too much text-based help, and mobile apps are visual beasts.
  • There’s either not enough information or there’s too much information.
  • A lot of apps make it difficult to find the help, often forcing the user to go to a separate screen to get help.

The best mobile apps are, like their older desktop and web-based applications, designed with user assistance integrated into the app itself. But these seem to be few and far between. Again, software companies are often under pressure to deliver an app to market as quickly as possible, and in that rush, it’s the documentation that often suffers.

I will provide some examples of good and bad mobile help in future articles. For now, take a look at your own mobile apps and see how your own user assistance stacks up. CohenWrite of Greenwich, CT can help.

Sources:

http://thenextweb.com/insider/2014/01/08/worldwide-internet-social-media-and-mobile-statistics-dig-into-183-pages-of-data/

http://www.digitalbuzzblog.com/infographic-2013-mobile-growth-statistics/

Report from the  International Telecommunication Union (ITU)

 

 

Webinar Planning and Scripting from Technical Writer in Greenwich, CT

Posted by | freelance technical writer, Online Help Writer, Software User Assistance, technical documentation in Greenwich CT, technical writing, Web-based user assistance, webinar planning and scripting, writing services in Greenwich CT | No Comments

By now we’ve all heard of web conferencing, that ubiquitous service that allows conferencing events to be shared with remote locations over the Internet. The modern term for this service is Webinar, and they have become both popular and quite useful for customers of all kinds of companies.

Webinars are often presented as a combination of software demonstration and PowerPoint presentations, and frequently provide some form of take-away document at the end. The take-away document can be the actual PowerPoint presentation, which can be problematic if the presentation is too wordy, too vague, or doesn’t have enough meaningful images; or an additional document specifically designed for this purpose. One of the most popular webinar services is Webex, which is a proprietary service from Cisco.

Some web conferencing solutions require that additional software be installed by the presenter and participants. Some web conferencing vendors provide a complete solution while others just enhance existing technologies. Participants can be individuals or a group. The best webinar systems allow individuals to interact with the presenter by means of a chat panel, in which the attendees can ask questions that are seen live by the presenter. Many webinar vendors provide either a recorded copy of an event, or a means for a subscriber to record an event. In my experience, the majority of people who register for a webinar end up not attending but going back later and watching or downloading the recording of the event. So the ability to record webinars is very important.

Of course the most important aspect of a webinar is the actual presentation. Is it focused on a single piece of software or logical group of software functions? Is there a demonstration of the software? If there are slides to present, are they useful and capture the attention of the attendees?

Webinars can be a very cool way to impart important information to your customers about what your product does, how it works, and how to use it. Shorter webinars are usually more effective than longer webinars because quite honestly, most people are busy, multi-tasking, or simply lose focus after too much time. Of courser, a good writer can provide webinar planning and scripting, and some, this author included, can even do justice to the presentation.

Useful and Interesting Stuff Around the Web: from Technical Writer in Greenwich CT

Posted by | Content Strategy, freelance technical writer, Online Help Writer, Software User Assistance, technical documentation in Greenwich CT, technical writing, writing services in Greenwich CT | No Comments

There’s a lot of useful and interesting stuff floating around the web these days on a variety of topics, particularly those of interest to businesses who are thinking about how to present information to their customers. Unfortunately, there’s so much lousy and wasteful content out there, most people give up trying to find the good content.

Here then, are a few links to some articles and blog posts that I found useful and interesting, and I hope you do too:

A collective thanks to the authors of the aforementioned articles.

Technical documentation writing services in Greenwich CT

Posted by | freelance technical writer, Online Help Writer, Software User Assistance, technical documentation in Greenwich CT, technical writing, Uncategorized, writing services in Greenwich CT | No Comments

CohenWrite is backed by more than 25 years experience writing documentation for software and hardware products using a variety of popular authoring tools. In the “old days,” we used to write long-hand content and hand it over to a typist who prepared printed pages on a Xerox 860 system. Now we use all kinds of sophisticated single-based authoring software to prepare the widest variety of content to software users over the Internet.  The tools may have changed, but the fundamental principles underlying documentation content have not. End users still need to know how to get the most of out of your product. This is the value that experienced technical writers add to your product and your company.

Technical documentation includes but is not limited to:

  • Step-by-by procedural manuals
  • Online help
  • Immediate help embedded in the software itself
  • Conceptual information
  • Visual learning guides
  • Collaborative documentation
  • Information for programmers (API guides, for example)
  • Training guides

And the list goes on.

Web-based user assistance – technical writing in Greenwich CT

Posted by | freelance technical writer, Online Help Writer, Software User Assistance, technical writing, Web-based user assistance, writing services in Greenwich CT | No Comments

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.

Online and printable end user guides technical writing

Posted by | freelance technical writer, Online Help Writer, Software User Assistance, technical writing, writing services in Greenwich CT | No Comments

Even though the advent of social media and customer feedback and interaction has begun to change the way software help is delivered, most software companies still produce online and printable user guides.  CohenWrite is backed by 25 years of experience authoring end user guides using the most popular documentation authoring tools, including Madcap Flare, Adobe FrameMaker, RoboHelp and yes, even Microsoft Word. Current versions of these tools allow authors to output multiple deliverables from a single set of source files, making the process of producing and delivering information to suit your audience fairly painless.

Customers who buy your software applications, whatever they are, still need to know how to use them. They still need to know step-step-procedures, identify user interface elements, and understand how to get the most out of your product. End user guides, especially when delivered online and embedded in the software itself, still serves this purpose when designed properly, with the needs of the end user in mind.

CohenWrite can produce all of your end user guides using modern authoring tools, helping you to deliver the right information to your customers at the right time.