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User Interfaces, Documentation, Help and Capacity Building


March 29, 2009

Do you get the feeling that businesses often operate on auto-pilot? Companies follow the industry lead. If software products are delivered with help screens, manuals, and tooltips – and you are a software company – then you deliver help screens etc. It’s just the way things are done. Customers ask for this in RFPs. It’s a table stake. “The cost of doing business”.

Perhaps many software companies provide complex documentation as a means to generate training revenue. I think that specialization has brought the software industry to a point where there are too many features poorly documented for the target user.


Specialization in software companies creates the “product manager”. I have been part of this elite group of planners who scour the market and engage customers to determine requirements – in a world where more features wins. At least, this has been the case in the past.

Then there is the “technical writer” whose job is to make sense of all these features – without delaying product launch

Customer-Centric Viewpoint

Customers ask for web interfaces, context-sensitive help, tooltips and documentation for a reason. Customers want the software to be used to its potential – get a return on the investment. The customer-centric approach requires understanding the real needs of building capacity. The customer-centric approach to capacity building differs from the normal “auto pilot” mode in many ways:

  • Provide features that customers need and use rather than providing visual noise and making it difficult to work.
  • Generate goal-based rather than function-based design. Users should not have to wonder which combination of functions meets the need. Users should be presented with a structure that follows their process.
  • All methods of documentation should be linked content. Users should not have to consult printed or PDF manuals if the help screen was not sufficient. They should not have to move out of the help function to the on-line knowledge base. This should be smooth.
  • Customer processes are not captured in standard software documentation. Many applications provide configurable workflow and rules. This configured workflow is not documented. Terminology can also be different. Customers should have the ability to append context-sensitive help with custom documentation.
  • Text is nice. Screenshot are better. Video examples can even be better. The entire help environment should support effective media.

Towards a Customer-Centric Manifesto?

Specialization has created silos that slows capacity building. Proven capacity building tools remain unintegrated. Users must hunt to find relevant assistance. It is time for software companies to integrate the disciplines of user interface design, documentation and e-learning. Assistance material including help, user guides, technical documentation, courseware, custom manuals, knowledge bases and e-learning should be integrated. Preferably on the same technical platform.

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Doug Hadden

Doug Hadden

Executive Vice President, Innovation at FreeBalance
Doug is responsible for identifying new global markets, new technologies and trends, and new and enhanced internal processes. Doug leads a cross-functional international team that is responsible for developing product prototypes and innovative go-to-market strategies.

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