When creating software that people use as a tool one of the most difficult parts is to make sure users understand it. Teaching users how it works and the best way to reach a certain goal with your software is essential to your success. 

Good products help users attain their goals

This is the case for machines, electronics and other physical products, but also holds true for software. A great deal of good UX design is creating something that people can easily understand and handle intuitively. People use products not for the sheer pleasure of using it but to reach a certain goal. This means that one of the main criteria of how people rate their experience depends on how effectively and efficiently people can reach those goals. 
 
So in general your product should strive to teach its users 3 different things:

  • To know where different functions can be found
  • To understand the purpose of the different functions 
  • To understand how different functions work

Even intuitive UI can require further explanation  

As much as designers try to give the user an intuitive experience it’s almost inevitable that complex software requires further explanation. While building our SaaS release we faced the challenge of teaching our platform not only to end users but also to Site and Community Managers. The nature of a SaaS solution is such that people should be able to download it and set up their own version without any direct contact with us. 

Real users don’t read manuals

Designers tend to rely on manuals to educate their users. For software physical manuals were abandoned ages ago but online manuals, helper texts and tooltips are still very common. There’s good reason for this: They help users understand difficult interactions, guide novice users through the platform and teach expert users shortcuts. 
 
For Open Social we’ve done exactly the same. Mainstream social media platforms have trained our end users to some degree, at this point almost everyone knows how to post comments or enroll in events. But we still required a manual for Site Managers, explaining how to set up social media login, site customization and visibility settings, among others. These additional features are far more challenging to explain than the basic functions of a community solution like Open Social.To help inexperienced Site Managers we took a few precautionary measures by removing functions that could break the site and bundling the other features. Still there is a lot of explaining necessary. We solved this with a tour, helper texts and an extra tutorial site called lets.getopensocial.org
 
So far so good. The only problem: Real users do not read manuals. 

Why don’t users read manuals?

There are a few obvious explanations and not so obvious explanations for this. For one, most people are lazy. They’d rather not do something that takes effort, like read complicated instructions. Even if forced to work with a new tool most novice users will skip over the instructions and assume most of it can can be figured out by using common sense. Advanced users skip over the instructions. They assume they know how to use things and don’t have time to read complicated instructions. This doesn’t just lead to errors, but also to users who maintain ineffective usage patterns, keeping themselves from learning and limiting their ability to achieve the goals they have set out for themselves with their new tool.
 
This isn’t always the user’s fault. Instructions are often tedious to read and poorly written. Users who try to read the instructions tend to get confused by the sheer number of words and concepts. Designers often overdo it with their instructions and tend to over-complicate things. This holds especially true for helper texts within a system. In an attempt to cover all bases and make sure the user gets what he has to do, long text scares off the user and creates the opposite effect. 

The theory of the Active User Paradox

Back in the 1980’s John M. Carroll and Mary Beth Rosson at IBM discovered that people don’t read manuals but dive right into tasks until they get stuck or manage to finish through trial and error. They formulated the theory of the Active User Paradox.  In this theory they deal with two common problems faced by users: 

  1. The Product Paradox
  2. The Assimilation Paradox 

These behavioral patterns explain how users try to avoid spending more time than necessary with a product. By skipping proper learning they try to save time, but on the long run this usually costs more time than it saves. 
 
The Product Paradox is the focus of the user on the final product. As they use a product for a specific goal they want to achieve this as soon as possible. They take the first best solution they can find,  skipping instructions and focusing only on the task at hand. 
 
Resulting from this the Assimilation Paradox describes the fact that if people don’t know something they compare it to things they know. Even if those comparisons are not appropriate. 

In their paper they give some great guidelines on how to deal with these issues: 

Summary of the Active User Paradox

How to improve learning behavior for users 

Thankfully, with the above in mind, there are things you can do to improve the learning behaviour of users. One important thing is to accept that long winded written text based manuals are often not an ideal solution. Diversification of methods, giving users different avenues for learning, will help bring your point across. In addition, even if a point against manuals has been made here, they should always be supported, as users will need it in worst case scenarios it has to be there.
 
Different onboarding strategies incorporate the principles Carroll and Rosson established in their papers and try to design for or mitigate the impact of the two paradoxes. 

Onboarding strategies

Onboarding tours in Open Social 

At Open Social we’ve incorporate those principles by giving users onboarding ‘tours’ of the platform. These are quasi manuals that are incorporated in the environment while the user is already active on the platform. Not only does this helps users understand Open Social, it raises engagement and creates a perception of progress. This strategy is supported by the academic finding that: “In interactive tasks, people are biased towards the use of general procedures that start with interactive actions.” (Fu & Gray, 2004)
 
We also offer chat support for Site Managers. People are much more likely to ask for help than to look it up. A survey from Gadget Helpline revealed that 64% of men don’t read the manual before calling tech support. As we want you to be successful with starting up your community not only do we offer technical support but we also help our clients with community building issues.  

Design for the user, not the system

We always design for the user, not for the system. This is also the case when writing manuals. We try to keep as close to the Principles of the Minimalism (Carrol, 1990) as possible:

  • Minimize the amount of reading and other passive forms of training by allowing users to fill in the gaps themselves
  • Include error recognition and recovery activities in the instruction
  • Make all learning activities self-contained and independent of sequence

The Principles and Heuristics for Designing Minimalist Instruction’ (Meij & Carroll, 1995) offer a lot of helpful instructions on this topic that go beyond mere copy writing, but show how to onboard users and engage them directly from the start. 

The Open Social onboarding tour
Our onboarding 'tour' allows users to get to know Open Social while they use it

Where can you find Open Social manuals?

Alongside the onboarding ‘tour’ and chat support we host our full manual on on lets.getopensocial.org, a SaaS installation of Open Social. 

“Online help is more likely to be consulted than paper manuals, but users are equally likely to report that they solve their problem by asking a colleague or experimenting on their own.”  (Novick, D. G., & Ward, K. 2006) 

The way our online manual is set up, lets.getopensocial.org doesn’t just function as a manual but also as a community for Open Social Site and Community Managers. This allows people to talk about any issues they encounter and share information on how to resolve these problems. They can either ask for support from someone from our team or from a more experienced Site Manager rather than looking it up themselves. We hope that this combination of manual and  peer support system will create more interaction and traction then we can deliver with either classical manuals or a traditional support chat. 

Have you read the manual? How do you teach your users to use your product? We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments!

Further reading

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