Too Long; Didn’t Read: How a New Generation is Changing User Assistance

User assistance (UA) is cropping up in the most unlikely ways. Formerly called “documentation,” user assistance now goes way beyond flat text to include more visual and interactive formats that people engage with to build knowledge.

At first glance, you may hardly realize that you’ve accessed the user assistance for a product, tool, software package, or work environment. That frictionless user experience is by design.

Thanks to new technologies like augmented reality and machine learning, plus recent innovations in enterprise mobility, something as innocuous as a poster that hangs on a factory wall with the message “Safety First” can be coded to call up additional superimposed information; when you hold a mobile phone up to it, you will see a video for the correct procedure to put on protective equipment or how to clean up spills.

Digital Transformation of User Assistance

While many SAP customers are undergoing digital transformation to intelligent enterprises, traditional SAP user assistance – like browser-based textual help, printed software documentation, wizards, and tutorials – is experiencing a digital transformation of its own. Deliverables are being reimagined to integrate technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning that enable Q&A bots, searchable video, and classification of target user groups, as well as intelligent search term prediction.

“Just a few years ago, SAP product documentation was monolithic sets of static, textual documentation updated twice a year at best,” says Sven Leukert, vice president of User Assistance at SAP.

“Today, we deliver user assistance packed with videos and interactive graphics, and we’re gearing up for chatbots and conversational UIs,” says Leukert. “We’re lucky to be part of a cutting-edge company like SAP, where integrating technological innovations like artificial intelligence and augmented reality is standard practice. If we in user assistance really want to stay relevant, we need to understand and harness these innovations to better serve our users.”

SAP user assistance is undergoing digital transformation to integrate artificial intelligence and machine learning

Streamlining Volume, Toning Up Content

User assistance is intended to provide guidance to the user to complete a task or understand a concept. It must meet the needs of target users — whether novice or advanced, and dependent on organizational role and psychology — in the context in which they are working with the product or software, whether in an office or in the field, and in a relatively relaxed or time-critical environment. In reality, by the time they access user assistance people are often stressed; something is not working for them.

In tense situations, it can be frustrating for users to have to comb through a vast repository of documentation. SAP, for example, contains 30 million text-based documents in English alone. That’s 72 percent of the volume of Wikipedia.org.

To make productive sense of this sea of documentation, the user assistance team at SAP has been working under Sven Leukert’s leadership to meet the information consumption patterns of SAP users by limiting size of the help content and offering the right information to the user according to context and role.

Next-Generation Users Prefer Video and Social Forums

In the course of transforming its user assistance, SAP is also examining the evolving information consumption patterns of users. People increasingly prefer getting information from videos and collaborative social networks, while reading books is becoming a less favored activity. According to a 2007 study by the American National Endowment for the Arts, the average person between 15 and 24 spends two to 2.5 hours watching TV, and just seven minutes reading. By 2021, there will be an estimated 3.02 billion social media users worldwide.

Generational preferences for video and social media are supported by an informal study by user assistance team at SAP on the ICT habits of 18 international university students. When the students were asked how they familiarize themselves with new software, over half (60 percent) answered that they simply start using the software immediately, while only 33 percent read the help files. Asked how they search for information, 70 percent said they use Google. Asked which information sources they use, 92 percent prefer video channels and forums, 21 percent use help, and only 15 percent read books. Taken together, these facts paint a picture of a new generation of users who are less inclined to be bothered with lengthy documentation, preferring instead to engage with video sites or social forums for user assistance.

Shhhh! In Prototyping

Emphasizing clear, concise communication and good design, SAP is advancing industry trends for digital user assistance while exploring new techniques in video and multimedia communication, streamlined text, conversational UX, and social collaboration.

The UA prototyping lab, SAP’s research and development team responsible for discovering new ways to deliver user assistance, works with customers to understand their needs, collaborates with technical communicators to ensure best practices, and employs new technologies to develop user assistance that is accessible and user-centric. Here are some of the exciting prototypes they are working on:

  • Too Long; Didn’t Read (TL;DR): This style of user assistance enhances the textual information with a widget that tells the reader the estimated reading time for the text and provides a summary of the content upfront. TL;DR addresses the needs of novice users who are in a hurry and may be overwhelmed by the amount of help available to them, while also providing advanced users with the key terms and procedural reminders that they are looking for without overloading them with additional information.
  • Searchable Video: As much as people may enjoy video, one of the key problems users have with the format is that it’s not searchable. SAP is working on creating searchable video for its user assistance to speed up access to the information. The user enters a search term, clicks, and the video forwards to the appropriate place. The subtitles in searchable video also make it accessible for the hard of hearing. The prototyping team won an internal Green Dot Award in 2016 for its searchable video concept.
  • Augmented Reality (AR): The prototyping team also recently won the UK Technical Communication Award for Best Business Integration for its interactive app that reads smart posters enhanced by AR content. With advances in enterprise mobility, expect to see more examples of AR in user assistance.
  • Mobile-Based Help: A number of departments still rely on old monitors that are not able to display SAP Help to full effect. Most employees however have a smartphone these days equipped with a high-definition screen right in their pockets. It’s not realistic that departments will buy new monitors for everyone, so SAP has developed a mobile version of its help that is dynamically available in near real time.

Register Now for UA Reloaded, June 13-14 in St. Leon-Rot, Germany

Registration is now open for UA Reloaded 18, a one-of-a-kind conference that invites technical communicators to break through to the other side of user assistance. Conference sessions explore the latest innovations in user assistance, including non-traditional formats, the impact of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, and techniques for trans-media storytelling.

“The speed of technological evolution today is dazzling — and extremely relevant for user assistance,” says Leukert. “For SAP, hosting UA Reloaded is the occasion to learn from some of the most thought-provoking experts in the world and share that experience with others.”

UA Reloaded is being held June 13-14 at the SAP offices in St. Leon, near Heidelberg, Germany. A tekom (German Association for Technical Communication) conference supported by SAP, the event offers participants an exciting program filled with interactive lectures, live videos, technology demos, and networking opportunities.

Register for UA Reloaded today!