Effective User Assistance Design: Ten Best Practices

By Meghashri Dalvi

Published: February 20, 2007

“User assistance (UA)—in the form of manuals or online Help—guides users in their tasks, suggests better ways of getting their work done, and provides directions for troubleshooting their problems.”

In a utopian world, a product would be so perfect it would not need any user assistance at all. But in reality, products aren’t perfect, and users need assistance through different stages of their use. User assistance (UA)—in the form of manuals or online Help—guides users in their tasks, suggests better ways of getting their work done, and provides directions for troubleshooting their problems.

Designing effective user assistance is a challenge, especially within the available resources and time constraints. If you make a little extra effort and follow certain best practices, you can make your product’s user assistance a big success.

Here are ten best practices for creating effective user assistance:

  • Step into the user’s shoes—in mind and in practice. Gather information about your users in advance, profile them well, explore the way they work, then do your best to think like them.

Of course, a single typical profile probably won’t represent all of your users. More likely you’ll need to model your users by creating a set of distinct personas. These personas might represent roles in a corporate world—such as a type of knowledge worker, supervisor, or manager—or graded levels of skill—novice, intermediate, or expert. Personas might even represent users’ diverse goals in approaching user assistance. For example, users might simply want to learn a procedure. They might need help troubleshooting a problem. Or perhaps they lack domain expertise, as Mike Hughes described in his UXmatters article “User Assistance in the Role of Domain Expert.”

Users differ from one another in many ways. They may be old or young, skilled experts or novice users, rural or urban—which would likely have implications regarding the speed of their Internet connections. Users have different likes and dislikes, varying interests, and favorite routines. The key to creating successful products is in analyzing users’ needs, understanding their wants, and designing for their preferences.

“The key to creating successful products is in analyzing users’ needs, understanding their wants, and designing for their preferences.”

Make the effort to find out what tasks users generally perform, how often they perform those tasks, and for which tasks they are likely to need user assistance. Such a task analysis also gives you a general framework for designing user assistance, including its delivery format, page layout, language, and the depth and complexity of the content.

If you can, test a prototype of your product with real users. While this sounds easy enough, in a globally distributed product development scenario, you may not have access to any real users. In that case, do usability testing with some local people who are as close to your user profiles as possible.

You can also learn a lot about user assistance requirements by doing some competitive analysis. Use other similar products and find out whether their user assistance works for you and what is good and bad about it.

User research, task analysis, and usability testing are key elements of user-centered design (UCD), which is essential for good product design. Treat the user assistance you are designing as a full-blown product and go all out to identify with your users.

  • Borrow fearlessly. This element of best practice is very simple. Carl Sewell, famous owner of one of the largest car dealerships in the United States, reveals his favorite principle for generating customer loyalty [1]: borrow, borrow, and borrow. He borrowed good ideas from many other companies to turn his dealerships into the best in the country.

You can borrow this simple and effective principle, too. Adopt other designers’ good ideas that have proved effective and apply them to your user assistance or design projects.

  • Plan, estimate, budget, schedule, and track. Project management is an essential part of creating great user assistance. If your team budgets insufficient time or money for user assistance, your most creative ideas will fall flat and may never make it into your product. To ensure that your best user assistance ideas are not wasted, plan for user assistance from the beginning of a project, align your goals with your team’s development lifecycle, and track your progress.
  • Create small chunks of information. When creating content, serve it in small portions and keep it simple. Cognitive psychology tells us that presenting small chunks of information is a great strategy for organizing and prioritizing information, making it easier for users to comprehend.
“Smaller information chunks help users to focus and ease information recall.”

Smaller information chunks help users to focus and ease information recall. We break phone numbers into small groups of numbers so we can remember them. Follow the same principle when organizing descriptions and procedures.

When users need to know how to complete their tasks, they want short, easy steps to guide them through procedures. When users need some troubleshooting information, they want a helping hand to guide them through detailed step-by-step instructions in plain language. Rather than bombarding users with heaps of information all at once, break information into smaller chunks.

Users don’t want to read long pages of descriptive text—especially online. According to one study by Jakob Nielsen [2], reading from computer screens is about 25% slower. Therefore, he advises using as little as 50% of the text that would appear in printed content. People don’t like having to scroll pages unnecessarily either. For online help topics, try to fit your content on one brief page whenever possible.

Smaller nuggets of information in simple language are easier to understand, too. Keeping a description or instructions brief requires the use of simpler, more concise language, making them easier to read.

  • Provide good navigation. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines emphasize the importance of good navigation [3]. User assistance may contain valuable gems of information, but what’s the use if users can’t find what they are looking for? Display a Help menu or link prominently in your product’s user interface. For Help systems, provide tables of contents, indexes, lists of figures and tables, and a search function, so users will know what Help includes and where to find it.

Provide context-sensitive Help for the pages of Web applications and wizards and the windows in desktop applications. Present lists of links to related information, so users can quickly get more information by clicking hyperlinks and cross-references. To sum up, make your content accessible from every possible place, so users can easily get to the information they need, where and when they need it.

  • Pack user assistance with examples. A small example here, a demo there, a show-me-how link, a guided tour, a detailed case study—all of these give users confidence by letting them see how their tasks really get done. Marketing people, domain experts, or business analysts often have such materials ready. Use them. When describing a tricky procedure, provide a real-life example to show users how it is done. For reports, nothing works better than a screen shot of a typical report with standard values. In short, show users rather than just telling them.

Use graphics wherever you need to illustrate a point, but keep them as small as possible and don’t overdo it. Online readers dislike unnecessary graphics that make pages slow to load and require them to scroll. So when you use graphics, use discretion. For example, when you want to include larger graphics, use thumbnails to link to them. If you want to illustrate a complete procedure visually, create a separate demo. Showing off your multimedia skills is fine, provided you keep the media separate and make viewing or listening optional. In short, do everything in moderation.

  • Highlight hints and tips. When providing instructions, offer hints and tips, so novices can follow the basic procedures while more experienced—and experimental—users can pick up hints to get a job done faster. Taking this approach makes your user assistance work for all types of users.
  • Offer supplementary information. Your analysis of user profiles has probably shown that you need to serve a large, diverse group of people who have obvious differences from your typical user profile. So don’t take your users’ knowledge for granted. Provide as much supplementary information as you can, but isolate this information from the main content flow.

Present supplementary information in the form of introductions, technology backgrounders, product concepts, glossaries, FAQs, case studies, tutorials, demos, and appendixes. Such supporting information will smooth the induction of beginners, provide a reference for others, and maybe trigger ideas for experts.

  • Keep user assistance consistent. After all your effort on design and content development, don’t forget the importance of consistency. Lack of consistency in user assistance is the single biggest factor in disappointing users.

Ben Shneiderman’s principles of HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) design [4] emphasize consistency in all aspects of the user interface. Extend that principle to user assistance. Make sure your use of fonts, colors, spacing, and layouts is the same across all the user assistance components for a given product. Graphics, grammar, wording, style, and tone should be consistent, too. Use the same terminology everywhere and, if necessary, provide definitions in a glossary. Remember, your goal is to help users, not confuse them. So fix any inconsistencies before delivering your user assistance.

  • Practice Kaizen. Let’s face it—no product design or user assistance is perfect on its first iteration. You need to keep on improving the design and content of your user assistance by coming up with innovative ideas and incorporating customer and team feedback. Once you’ve launched a service or product, you can delight your existing customers by regularly releasing updates to it—including enhancements to the user assistance. The Japanese call this Kaizen [5]—continuous incremental improvement.


[1] Sewell, Carl, and Paul B. Brown. Customers For Life: How To Turn That One-Time Buyer Into a Lifetime Customer. New York: Pocket Books, 1991.

[2] Nielsen, Jakob. “Be Succinct! (Writing for the Web).” Alertbox, March 15, 1997. Retrieved February 20, 2007.

[3] Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0, May 5, 1999. Guideline 13. Retrieved February 20, 2007.

[4] Shneiderman, Ben. Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1998.

[5] Imai, Masaaki. Kaizen: The Key to Japan's Competitive Success. New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin, 1986.


Solid recommendations! I had the opportunity to see the power of the principle of “Pack User Assistance with Examples” when usability testing context-sensitive Help screens that were used to explain dialog boxes in an application. The main elements for a Help topic were (a) a screen capture of a populated dialog box—the example)—(b) Help that appeared when a user pointed to each of the fields shown in the screen capture, (c) a conceptual description of the dialog box, and (d) step-by-step instructions. Most of the users just had to see the example of the dialog box populated with realistic values, and they got it. They closed the Help at that point and successfully completed their task.

Usability testing is a great source to determine not only which tasks a user will require assistance with, but what information will actually help them on their way. If you have a usability problem that cannot be rectified entirely through design changes or can be solved in a few different ways, notice the words people use to describe what they were looking for or what they were expecting and use those exact words in the user assistance. For example, we tested a tool that was labeled in a particular way that no one understood. Three different suggestions consistently came up in the usability testing sessions. We could pick only one new label, but we used the other two suggested terms in user assistance to resonate with a wider group of users. Covering all three interpretations improved users’ task performance.

Very true, Mia.

Usability testing gives very useful insights about “what users really want”. Interestingly, often the user assistance (UA) designer / writer becomes the first usability tester and comes up with feedback about the product design.

On one project, we took this idea further and made the quality assurance (QA) group our first testers of the UA. We asked them to look at the UA content while beginning to test the product. We got amazing feedback from them, especially about the flow of the UA. Then we officially added UA testing while learning the product as a task for all the new team members. This also brought in highly useful comments, mostly about the content for beginners.

The idea is to locate all possible free! sources of feedback on your work.

Your Help files need to be present, and they should contain all of these suggestions. Context-sensitive Help is preferred as well.

However… Let’s not forget that our user assistance pieces/parts should not be used to supplement or replace solid design. “RTFM” does not work and is not a design philosophy.

I am writing a user manual for 30,000 small businesses in the US to help use our software for writing grants and contracts. Anyone with expertise out there to help in this discussion?

Wow, this is very interesting, even though I’m still new in this field. I’m doing my bsc, and it’s my first year. Looking forward to hearing more.

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