Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Selecting Tutorial Topics, or The efficiency of not doing something is infinite

I'm a member of the UPA (the Usability Professionals' Association), an association of people working in the field of user interface design. Exploiting the overlap between my technical writing side and my UI side, I'm working on an article for UX, the association's magazine on creating effective tutorials.

Some of the material that's going into this article I've covered elsewhere in this blog (look up the keywords associated with tutorials) but I realized that I'd never talked about the most important part: picking what to write tutorials about. I'm very concerned about the technical writer's efficiency, which is calculated by dividing the impact that the write has divided by the time spent. The highest efficiency is achieved when you do no work at all--when time spent is zero. After all, anything divided by 0 is infinitely large.

Remember that readers use tutorials when they have some goal they want to achieve. When users can't figure out what to do, they'll (sometimes) reach for a tutorial and work through the instructions, modifying the steps to meet their needs.

This means that there is no point in writing a tutorial that allows the user to "experience" some feature of the application or whose purpose is to demonstrate a piece of technology. Users will only take time out of their lives to work through a tutorial when they need the tutorial to meet one of their own goals. Your second step in creating a useful tutorial, then, is determine what your user's goals are—your first step is determining who the audience for the tutorial is. Only after you determine who the audience for your tutorial is can you determine what their goals are.

After determining your audiences and its goals, your third step is to determine the overlap between which of those goals will require your support and for which of those goals, the audience will seek out a tutorial. For tasks that the user regards as "intuitive", the user may choose the 'fumble around' strategy as the best way to achieve their goals rather than reach for a tutorial. Experts may choose to leverage existing knowledge (and would rather be caught dead then reading any help information). Where a user is surrounded by other users, users will find out how to perform common activities by asking surrounding users.

This process ensures that you only write tutorials that people will actually use. Or, from an efficiency point of view, that you spend zero time writing stuff that has no impact.

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