Supporting People Where They Need it, When They Need it

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December 2010

Supporting People Where They Need it, When They Need it

CIDMIconNewsletterPaul Trotter, Author-it Software

Social media has changed the way users experience applications, for better and for worse. The sheer volume of information available has led to users spending up to 30 percent of their time searching for what they need. That’s a lot of wasted time—and a lot of potentially frustrated users.

What if there was a way to turn that problem on its head? Imagine: Instead of searching for content, the right content found you. Instead of wading through mountains of data for that one all-important piece of information, content specifically tailored to your needs appeared in your workspace. Instead of desperately trying to make that one-size-fits-all help page conform to your needs, you’re given in-context assistance.

Stop imagining. With customized user assistance and dynamic content, users experience a 30 percent increase in productivity. Now that’s change for the better.


The evolution of user assistance over the past two decades has largely involved the development of clever and complex solutions that no one used.

Twenty years ago, our solution was to print dense, multi-volume help books, toss them over the wall, and hope for the best. For users facing tight deadlines, this functionally translated to no help at all.

Fifteen years ago, we decided to convert those printed books to PDFs and/or to dump the content of the books into online help formats. Users were instructed to press F1. To our dismay, users stubbornly refused to press F1. They didn’t read the PDFs either.

Starting around five years ago, we decided to approach user assistance more systematically. We developed meta-tags that parsed content to the nth degree, assembling it when needed. “This,” we said to ourselves, “will help our users because the information is organized.” Then we presented this meta-organized content to users in the form of PDFs and online help. Still, the users couldn’t find what they needed.

But tools and technology were already emerging that would change user support from content-generic to content-specific assistance.

Moment of Need content

Moment of Need content is content that finds the user, appearing in the workspace as the user navigates daily tasks. A clerk entering data into an ERP system for a department store franchise, for example, would receive Moment of Need content directly from within the ERP application interface as she moved her mouse around the window. This is why Moment of Need content is sometimes called Performance Support—it assists users performing their individual tasks.

One key task for Moment of Need content is to eliminate the need for a user to “search” for an answer. Instead, bring the most relevant answers to the users directly into the interface where their predicament begins.

Think of Moment of Need content as a layer of support between the user and the interface, waiting for the user to have an “information need.” In this, customized user assistance resembles embedded help—and yet is very different.

Embedded help is typically text shown in the UI, more often in a Wizard; it generally requires a programmer at the original vendor to write the code and a writer to create the text. While useful, embedded help has real limitations. Content is generic, covering all audiences, and can’t be updated on the fly as needs arise. It’s oblivious to the user’s specific role in the company. Moreover, it’s static: Video and audio code is just too much to embed.

Moment of Need user support is the next step in supporting our users. It allows us to include static and active content, including links to video-based user support.

So why, if customized user assistance is so remarkably useful, don’t more companies use it? Simple: Dynamic help typically requires programming time, and getting programmers involved in user support is a non-starter in most organizations.

Fortunately, there are tools that don’t require programmers’ time—Author-it Assist and Author-it Aspect are two of them. That said, this article isn’t about which tool is best for customized user assistance. It’s about how to make the case for providing dynamic content to your users.

Dynamic Content

Now that we can deliver content to the user directly, regardless of who made the original software, what about delivering personalized content?

Dynamic publishing tools easily create and distribute dynamic content for our users, meaning the information delivered to our clerk should be/could be filtered based on her role, her department, her geographic location, and her language. Her colleague or boss might get different information from the same link in the same ERP page, form, or field.

Dynamic publishing allows individual organizations to determine the criteria against which ‘user profiles’ will be made, effectively interrogating a number of sources to understand who the user is, and dynamically creating each page, in real-time, as our clerk requests it.

Business Drivers

Understanding that your users waste 30 percent of their time looking for information, and that 50 percent of searches don’t return the correct information, is the first step toward building a powerful business case for bringing Moment of Need content to your organization.

But it’s just one of many business drivers forcing companies to develop smarter user assistance. The following are other drivers toward dynamic support, which I’ve broken into two categories—external and internal.

External Drivers

  • Reduced Help Desk Calls
  • Improved User Satisfaction
  • Increased Value Proposition
  • Higher User Adoption, Lower User Error
  • Lower Project Cost

If your company makes software that’s used by people outside the company, you may be staffing a customer support department. Every time the phone rings or a chat session starts, someone has to respond to it. Most of the phone calls or chat sessions involve simple questions requiring a few moments to clarify.

If users can find the information they need without searching, then they can solve their own issues and get back to work. Their subsequent sense of pride from having resolved the problem on their own and the pleasure they feel from having saved time in the process translates to increased user satisfaction. That makes it easier to justify the expense of purchasing the next version of the product or extending their subscription.

More and more organizations want to either customize the user support information they receive from you (the vendor) or add their own contextual content into your application, especially where their own processes inform the use of your software.

If your clients have process-oriented workflows, a high number of staff to train, and user errors are costing them money, providing them a method to embed their own training material directly into your software is a competitive advantage.

Associatively, reducing the frequency in which support is contacted for minor questions both saves your company money and frees up support staff to focus on the real issues. This is especially true in large rollout or upgrade projects where successful training and change management are critical success factors. It’s a win-win all around.

Internal Drivers

  • Reduced Turnover
  • Lower Training Costs
  • Faster Induction

If your company produces software that’s used internally, then the real internal driver for moving to Moment of Need content is increased productivity. Getting 30 percent more work out of your staff would represent a huge performance increase—the kind that gets middle management promoted to upper management and that wins executives bonuses.

Providing real-time user assistance directly in the software reduces offsite training time and reduces total formal and informal support calls. People are better at their jobs when they know how to do their jobs, and workers who are better at their jobs like their jobs—and want to stay. Even better, these same people suggest process improvements, enhancing the workplace and the business in general.

Getting new people doing their job quickly is another driver. It can take six months for new people to understand and perform their jobs in many workplaces. But these same people can easily get the information they need, right in the interface, as they need it, making them fully functional in weeks instead of months.


We’ve looked at better ways to deliver information to users at the moment they need it and better ways to ensure the information is personalized. These requirements reflect the growing demands from the market place that has become technologically savvy. A small number of products already exist to help you support your users.

Requirements for using these tools may vary, depending on your workflow, but they must include at least six of the following attributes.

  • Operate independently of the authoring tool. Because different tools meet different information development needs, connecting this information to users cannot be tied to the use of a specific authoring tool. We must be able to create the content in the tool of our choice and then link it. For example, we must be able to link PDFs, Camtasia screen videos, and knowledge base articles with the same ease.
  • Connect to web and standalone applications. As tools change over time, it’s important that dynamic content be available in the applications we support. The right tool will connect to web-based applications and to desktop applications with the same ease.
  • Recognize user logins and respond to roles. Dynamic content is not helpful if it doesn’t recognize that different users have different information needs, based on their roles in the company. And these roles change over time. It must be easy to recognize users from their user login and assigned network group.
  • Allow content developers to easily link to the application. Lack of developer resources prevents most user assistance groups from providing needed help. Content creators must be able to link dynamic content without involving busy developers.
  • Support static content and media files. Users learn in different ways. We need to support these learning styles with text, screen videos, audio, and other methods. It must be easy to connect all these media to the interface so our users can select those which fit their learning styles most appropriately.
  • Easily update and push content to the user. As the product and our users change, we need to add or change the dynamic support to better meet our users’ needs. Updating the content and links must be easy on our end. It must also be easy to deploy to our users by pushing the content out to the application. The best solution would be transparent to our users.

Carefully evaluate any dynamic publishing tool to ensure that it fits your workflow and authoring tools to provide the best experience for your users. CIDMIconNewsletter

Trotter_PaulPaul Trotter

Author-it Software

Paul Trotter is the Founder/CEO of Author-it Software Corporation and the architect of the Author-it product. Author-it was born out of the frustrations that Paul experienced producing documentation in the Telecommunications industry. His vision was to solve the problems that content writers face—not provide a cure for the symptoms. The result was Author-it; a product built from the ground up around principles such as topic-based writing, single sourcing and separating content from format. Over a decade and five major releases later, these principles remain true of Author-it today and are the basis of the success of the company.

Regarded as a visionary within the industry, Paul is a popular speaker at events all over the world on topics ranging from technical writing and help authoring to content management and localization. Today, Paul continues to drive the product vision for Author-it. In this he applies his problem solving talents to the day-to-day issues that people face in creating, managing, and delivering content. This vision has seen the development of world-leading technologies such as Author-it Xtend and Author-it Live.