Helping the Experts

By Meghashri Dalvi

Published: June 9, 2008

“Perhaps the most difficult aspect of managing this complexity is providing Help that is really helpful to expert users.”

When creating Help for any application, the typical starting point is user profiling. We create user personas, find out what tasks users perform, and identify which tasks are more frequent. We also note users’ preferences for delivery format and language.

However, as applications become more and more sophisticated, their Help systems tend to be equally complex. Some of the reasons for complexity in a Help system are that, more often than not, users have a variety of roles, with different sets of permissions for changing configurable options, and different levels of expertise. The result is an intricate and multilayered Help system. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of managing this complexity is providing Help that is really helpful to expert users.

Who Are the Expert Users?

Expert users are individual users who use an application extremely skillfully, perform most tasks super-efficiently, and achieve the highest performance results.”

Expert users are individual users who use an application extremely skillfully, perform most tasks super-efficiently, and achieve the highest performance results. They use the application very frequently—either as a professional or as a hobbyist. They understand the application’s complex functionality very well and look forward to mastering it.

Expert users like to take shorter routes to completing tasks and often discover these shortcuts themselves. They are continually on the prowl to find and internalize knowledge that leads to performance improvements. They are highly motivated, active self-taught learners, preferring exploring to assisted learning. They participate enthusiastically in user forums, answering rather than asking questions.

How Can You Help Expert Users?

“Writing Help for expert users is always a challenge.”

Writing Help for expert users is always a challenge. They quickly cover the basic learning curve for an application and soon find all the typical Help content overly simple. What can we then feed their hungry minds?

  • To satisfy their curiosity about the application, explain why in addition to what and how. Consider how Google ranks search results. For expert Google users, knowing why a specific result ranks first has a very high importance. Such users have a natural urge to understand why a result so closely matches their search objective. Explain it to them. You can make viewing such in-depth information optional by providing links to it from procedural Help pages.
  • Describe the business rules and system limitations that justify an application’s restrictions. If a field can accept only eight characters, describe the reasons behind that. Expert users are able to appreciate the resource optimization decisions system developers make.
  • Include detailed references and background information. Even if your expert users already have sufficient domain knowledge, they always want to enhance it and correlate it with the tasks they perform using the application. You can either add such information to the Help system itself or provide links directing readers to resources on your Web site.
  • Exclude some obvious tips and tricks to let expert users satisfy their need for discovery.
  • Supplement glossary entries with examples, formulas, and information about appropriate usage. For instance, if your glossary includes statistical methods, suggest when and why a particular method is appropriate.
  • Design interesting case studies to stimulate expert users’ minds and demonstrate possible uses for the application. You can even invite them to solve the cases!
  • Include best practices. Experts love them.
  • Create self-assessment questionnaires on application usage skills, prompting users to try out previously unexplored features. Such questionnaires also let users see whether they’ve reached the next level of expertise!
  • Customization is a favorite activity of expert users, so provide customization options in the Help system itself—such as the default page to display, choice of skins, font size, favorites, and so on. You can also let expert users turn off basic Help once they’ve familiarized themselves with the application.
  • Whenever possible, hint that your knowledgebase has much more to offer than the bundled Help and encourage expert users to explore these resources.

If all these additions make the Help system too bulky, split the system up according to skill levels. Users actually derive pleasure from moving up to the next level of expertise.

How Can Expert Users Help You?

“Encourage user feedback or participation in a user forum where users can share knowledge and ideas.”

Naturally, creating Help for expert users requires considerable time and effort. But there is a definite upside to it. Engaging expert users in meaningful dialogues offers a number of benefits. Here are some ways you can do that:

  • One spectacularly simple idea is to encourage user feedback or participation in a user forum where users can share knowledge and ideas. Your forum will soon be flooded with queries about problems users encounter—and their solutions!
  • Routinely ask users about their own shorter and faster versions of procedures.
  • Ask users for their views on the usability of the application. This can bring in some surprisingly practical ideas that can actually improve your application.
  • Expert users like to understand how the application can integrate or communicate with other applications. For example, they might want more compatible file formats for export or import. Listen willingly to their concerns. They can soon translate into profitable add-ons.

Show your appreciation for the contributions and wisdom of your expert users in some tangible way. Acknowledging their collaboration through a letter or a certificate is a good idea. A token gift, an invitation to participate in beta testing, or a free upgrade can also demonstrate your gratitude.

Make helping your expert users a win-win situation!

4 Comments

This is a very useful article. For way too long, we have designed user assistance for the lowest common denominator, ignoring the experts. John Carroll once noted that Instructional System Design did not handle complex problem spaces, and your article starts to address that issue in the context of Help.

And, of course, we need to consider how we help people become experts in the first place—see The Perpetual Super-Novice.

I agree.

Another issue I am trying to address here is establishing a dialogue between the content creators and content users. It can be highly beneficial to both, and the expert users are perhaps the right user group to begin this exercise.

I would really appreciate inputs in this direction.

This is an excellent article! I write documentation for LabVIEW toolkits, and many of the toolkit users are expert LabVIEW users. Thanks for some great insight and tips!

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