online help

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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?