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10/6/2005
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User Guidance 101

Have you ever become completely lost in a new technology? I don’t mean lost in a good way, enjoying the exploratory process of trying out every feature and function, but lost in that frustrating way, running up against seemingly endless technical walls and not accomplishing anything.

When new users reach this level of frustration with a new technology, they become adoption resistant. They decide it is simply not worth the trouble and begin to work around the technology as best they can. To avoid this situation as much as possible (because there will always be those who resist change), it is necessary to develop a new user education plan, and more importantly, clear and useful user guidance.

User guidance comes in a variety of flavors because people approach technology in a number of different ways. Some users dive in head first, and when they run into trouble, try the help files. Others start with the Read Me and help files, then try out the system with print outs in hand. And, still others require extensive one-on-one instruction and handholding.

While I enjoy teaching courses on how to use new collaborative technologies, I also have a deep appreciation for good documentation. It may be a tome, but one that I hold as a standard for user guidance is the "Complete Acrobat Help" PDF loaded with Adobe Acrobat. It has bookmarks that link to the well-named sections and plenty of internal hyperlinks to relevant content. Adobe also loaded Search and Index functions into their Help to give users different options for exploring their documentation. Using this guidance has helped me enormously in my work and personal pursuits.

During my beta testing and piloting of different collaborative environments earlier this year, I tried the latest free version of Groove. When I downloaded the application, I also downloaded all of the documentation I could find on the site for the full version. Like Acrobat’s help, Groove’s "User Guide" is a 268 page PDF with bookmarks to the appropriate sections. It is pretty well-written, but does not display many screenshots.

I have found that users who are new to the concept of collaborative technologies need the screenshots to make sense of the how-to directions and to put them into context. In fact, users of documentation I provided in the past reworked it and uploaded their own versions to the collaborative space. Their versions had even more detailed screenshots with circles and arrows to indicate step-by-step directions.

This week, I updated the customized "User Guide" we provide for the Ramius CommunityZero platform that IEEE uses for its online communities. Four years ago, before I joined the program, the user documentation was distributed as PowerPoint presentations for precisely the same reason as above—the handy cropping feature as well as those irreplaceable circles and arrows. Unfortunately, the files had grown huge and unwieldy due to the number of screenshots, so I started saving them as PDFs (with two slides per page. Taking a page from the book of Adobe, I also added bookmarks to corresponding sections.

Whenever Ramius releases major updates with changes to the user interface and/or to the collaborative space’s tools, the outdated screenshots and text in our customized version must be replaced. After the September updates, my rework of the documentation was quite an overhaul. While I would prefer to use desktop publishing software designed for producing user documentation, resources are thin. Consequently, I made do by using PowerPoint’s features in the same way my innovative users did. It is definitely not the best way to do it, but it does allow me to provide the many, many screenshots required by our new users.

This latest version of the User Guide is slimmer than previous versions because I cut some extraneous and outdated material, while reformatting many of the areas that were not improved previously. I also reworked a section of a tool that had been completely revamped. Paying special attention to the needs of our users, I provided step-by-step instructions with plenty of circles and arrows on each of the screenshots.

The User Guide is not meant to replace the context-sensitive help files available within Ramius’ system, but to accompany them as a good starting point for novices. Before Ramius releases the updates, the company always updates their help files. One interesting feature about Ramius’ help is that it is also rights-sensitive. If I use my guest account to log into the system, I only have access to the help files for regular users. When I log out and log back in again as my administrator self, my privileges allow me to see the help files available to those with more rights.

While help files are very useful and an absolute must, I have found that user-specific, customized documentation has proven to be a valuable tool for increasing adoption and participation in collaborative environments. Continuous improvement of user guidance also is key, especially when the application is regularly enhanced. The best advice I can give others who produce user guidance is to collect best practices in other technologies' documentation. The wider the range of technological documentation I study, the more benefit I can offer my users in my guidance to them.

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