Help! or Who you gonna call?

Introduction to a special section on HCI and user assistance, from ACM <interactions>, January/February 2007

By Fred Sampson

Help systems have come a long way since the days of Microsoft Windows Help 1.0. The capabilities of user assistance technologies continues to grow and develop. More and more help is finding its way into the user interface, through popups, tooltips, mouseovers, better labels and hints right where users need it. At the same time, new ways of educating users are finding their way into what used to be a closed system: traditional help systems created as a separate component.

Today, information about a product comes from many sources: marketing and sales collateral, graphics and text in the interface, printed or softcopy books, Web-based delivery, visual and aural cues. Tomorrow, information will come from podcasts, SMS messages delivered to cell phones, user-annotated documentation, wikis, even videoblogs. The challenges and opportunities for helping users succeed with our products are seemingly endless. As a result, technical communicators and information architects will find themselves an essential part of the user experience design team, sharing design issues and contributing to solutions. The information that we provide can be a differentiator in a world of commoditized products and too many choices. That information will continue to come from multiple sources, not all under our control.

For better or worse, design communicates, and anyone who contributes to communication with the user is part of your design team, like it or not. Is the message that our users receive the same message that we think we’re sending? If the interface, interactions, user experience, training, and user assistance that we provide are not consistently on-message, we risk alienating our audience. If we-the entire design team-work together toward a unified user experience, we’re going to come closer to satisfying the people we really work for: our customers, our users.

In the following special section on user assistance, you’ll find a range of techniques and experiences in communicating with users. Doris Holloway describes a universal experience: designing without access to users. Doris reveals how her team worked with the problem and achieved success. Garett Dworman likewise describes a familiar experience: negotiating and arbitrating the competing interests and demands of all parties to a product design. Matthew Ellison provides best practices for the latest in embedded assistance from the perspective of an inductive interface. Mike Hughes shares his thoughts on developing a pattern language for user assistance. Michele Zanda and colleagues reveal how a talking head can benefit the users of a Web application. Sachin Patil and Kay Howell discuss the pros and cons of a learning tool that provides assistance tested in a game environment, but applicable elsewhere.

I think you’ll find a common thread in these provocative and enlightening articles: reiteration of the value of working as partners with sales and marketing, internal and external customers, design, development, test, and implementation of any of the products that we create.

I thank every one of the contributors to this section, and every one who submitted an article that we couldn’t fit in. I also thank Andrea Ames, information architect and strategist at IBM and past-president of STC, for her help and support.

If you have any thoughts on the contents of this section, please share them with me at or the editors at We’d like to hear from you.

About the Author

Fred Sampson is a co-chair of BayDUX, Vice President for Finance of SIGCHI, and a senior member of STC. In his spare time, Fred works as an information developer at the IBM Silicon Valley Lab in San Jose, California. Contact him at

Copyright Notice

© ACM 2007. This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in ACM <interactions>, Volume XIV.1, ISSN 1072-5520, (January/February 2007),