UA Europe - Trends in technical communication

The annual UA Europe Conference for Technical Communicators took place in Dublin, Ireland, from June 15 to 16. It was a great conference with inspiring sessions on current topics of technical communication: agile development, collaborative authoring, mobile user assistance, usability and much more.

The first conference day saw a panel discussion on current trends and technologies of technical documentation. The participants on the panel were leading vendors of user assistance technologies and services: George Bina (Syncro Soft), Mike Hamilton (MadCap Software), Ankur Jain (Adobe Systems), Jacquie Rhodes (3di Information Solutions) und Dennis Zhuravlev (Dr. Explain). Leah Guren from Cow TC moderated the discussion.

I enjoyed the discussion and picked out some opinions and statements that I personally found interesting.

Question: What aspects of mobile user assistance differ from other forms of UA?

Answers/opinions:

Mobile user assistance must behave in another way than traditional online documentation. Especially the following aspects are important:

  • Mobile user assistance must adapt to touch screens and small displays. This means the end for the tripane help we have been using in Windows for a long time. Expandable tables of contents and breadcrumbs cannot be used on small displays.
  • Overflow contents, such as big screenshots, must be removed from the documentation.
  • User assistance must be embedded in the application, so that the user is not forced to push the help button.
  • Content of mobile user assistence must be more targeted and simply less.

Mobile user assistance faces the challenge of supporting all the different platforms that are currently available: PC, web, tablet, smartphone. XML is a perfect basis for generating content for mobile user assistance, however, the transformations generating the output must be customized to the different devices. Today, there are two approaches for adapting mobile user assistance to the device: The help automatically recognizes the device and adapts itself or a redirect mechanism recognizes the device and routes the user to the customized help.

Ankur Jain summarized the need for adaptation to user context and device with the following memorable statement:

„If content is king, then context is queen."

The discussion made clear that mobile user assistance is currently in the beginning. Like in the first days of the internet, we are only just figuring out what works best for the users. General design guidelines are still under development.

Questions: How can tools facilitate better integration of help into applications?

Answers/opinions:

For me, one interesting thought in this part of the discussion was to offer fewer help sources to the user: Some applications make the user choose between help contents from online help, knowledge base, user forum, and support portal. Users should be able to search all these sources over a single access. The search capabilities of the help system thus get very important.

Also, the question was raised how reliable user-generated content is and whether companies should really link those entries in their help instead of monitoring the forums and transferring correct information to their help in order to enhance their own user assistance.

Some of the panel members spoke in favor of a tighter integration of user assistance into the application. For example, the application should offer help according to the tasks the user is doing at the moment (similar to development environments which automatically suggest options for called methods). Or the application should even precast the user actions and offer prophylactic assistance. Here, Leah Guren voiced her fear that "clippy" - the nerve-racking Microsoft Office assistant - could return and be even more intelligent.

Question: Do we still need printed documentation?

The unanimous answer was: Yes!

According to the panel members, there are various reasons why printed documentation will stay:

  • Legal requirements
  • Necessity to provide user assistance to people who are unable to read on screen
  • Popularity of the medium paper. Many people still enjoy reading on paper

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