UI navigation info for customizable UI? (take II)

Subject: UI navigation info for customizable UI? (take II)
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Chris Orr <got2940 -at- hotmail -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 26 Apr 2006 12:07:55 -0400

Chris Orr provided more information: <<... this is a web-based product>>

That makes it easier to dynamically generate Web pages on the fly; I'm sure this can be done on the desktop too, but don't know the equivalent technologies. On the Web, "Active Server Pages" (.asp files) are one example of such technologies. I know next to nothing abut them beyond the acronym, but they're widely used.

<<embedded help would solve some of our problems. But what about the scenario where a user finds a procedure in the help file and then needs to go do the procedure in the product?>>

See my previous postings (last week?) about how I created tutorials when I had no access to more sophisticated procedures such as wizards. The short version is that your first step must be to separate the task description from the interface description. For example, one of my standard approaches to creating a help topic was to create a single topic that listed the overall sequence of steps required to accomplish a task, then separate this from the details of the steps (i.e., the interface description), which are reached by means of hyperlinks. The overall topic tells you what to do to accomplish your goals; the linked topics show you each possible way to accomplish this.

The simplistic explanation of the solution is something like the following, with hyperlinks underlined: "To prepare your expense account report, you need to do three things: 1. Create a new spreadsheet. You can do this by _clicking the New account icon_, _selecting New account from the File menu_, or...." Then repeat this for steps 2 and 3. Alternatively, provide a single hyperlink per step that leads to a topic that discusses all alternatives: "You can accomplish the New account function in three ways, each of which is described later on this page. [list of the possibilities, each of which hyperlinks to a point later on this same page]

The basic principle here is that the hyperlinks go to a topic (or subtopic on the same page) that shows what the interface looks like for each alternative and how to use that part of the interface. The "how to" information that relates to the actual procedure would then be supplemented by details on that aspect of the task. In a dynamically created Web page, for example, the first lines of the page would be taken from a file or database entry that describes the UI for this specific function, and the last lines of the page would be taken from a file or database entry that describes the procedural details.

<<If they don't know where to go, there's a problem.>>

It's (y)our job to tell them where to go. <g> Users get confused by having too many options (it's called "the paradox of choice"), so one of our roles is to simplify that complexity by telling them which option we recommend. Other options may be equally acceptable, but that's not the point: the point is that we must simplify things for those who need the simplicity of a single option, while noting that alternatives are available for those who don't like what we recommend. Just hide those options behind a link so that nobody is paralyzed by choice.

<<... we are changing our target user profile from near-moron to sophisticated computer user. But our product is notorious for bad ui and difficult navigation. Hopefully, the new ui will be a real improvement, but I am not convinced yet.>>

One standard solution is to pick what you consider the easiest to use or most efficient or easiest to understand approach, and document that approach everywhere as your preferred choice. For example, most computer documentation focuses on the sequence of menu choices because that approach will work for every user in every context. The docs then add such things as keyboard shortcuts in the margin, or provide "expert topics" that supplement the menu-based approach. It's easy to produce such help by listing the "everyone can succeed by following these steps" information first, and offering a link to one or more alternatives for those who dislike your primary description.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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Re: UI navigation info for customizable UI: From: Chris Orr

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