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Archive for November, 2012


The Tenth Heuristic

Jakob Nielsen’s usability heuristics are probably the most-used heuristics for user interface design. These are ten well known principles, but I want to concentrate on just one of them.

Help and documentation
Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.

It is the last general principle of the “decalogue”. Probably the least important because it’s preferable that a system is so easy to use that no further help is needed to supplement the user interface itself. But this goal cannot always be met. Some users will want to become “experts” rather than casual users, and some intermediate users need reminding to perform their objectives.

It’s important to highlight that:

  • help is not a replacement for a bad design, the presence of help and documentation doesn’t reduce the usability requirements,
  • a help system must be well designed as well.

There are various types of help systems you can provide, but it is always better to use minimal instructions. Nobody read the manual. The help will only be used when the user are in some kind of difficulty, in need of immediate help.

What should not be done (especially in a mobile app)

  • A single very long file that lumps everything together. Users will lose focus by scrolling up and down (especially on a mobile device).
  • Don’t provide too much information. Users who come to help pages are usually already confused, so they aren’t inclined to read long blocks of text.
  • As an embedded web page. It is a common temptation. It takes 5 minutes to place a web view that loads a HTML file. And it also allows to provide a fast text formatting.

I know something about it, here’s how the help section on FreakyAlarm looked like:


The correct way

  • Task-oriented help. A minimal manual focused on real tasks to get started doing real work.
  • Gather the right questions and write clear topics that answer users’ questions.
  • Good scanning aids (such as bolding keywords) to increase readability.
  • Good user experience with native user interfaces, easy to navigate, easy to read.

For example, as in the last update 1.7:

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