Book Review: Developing User Assistance for Mobile Apps

Remember when the Windows Start button was a new thing? When printed manuals for software applications were first making way for electronic “Help” files, Joe Welinske was part of a team that produced an essential work for technical writers wrestling with new technology, Developing Online Help for Windows 95. Now at the dawn of a new age, Welinske, president of WritersUA in Seattle, offers technical communicators another help in navigating new waters with Developing User Assistance for Mobile Apps.

With the massive success of the iPhone and other smart devices, businesses large and small are creating applications that run on them. The limited screen space, need for apps to run quickly, and diversity of platforms are just a few of the serious challenges facing <people who make the app understandable>. This book helps us meet the challenges.

In “There is a Role for UA in Mobile,” Welinske helps you argue for including user assistance (UA) in your app. While you can boil the argument down to “no interface is so intuitive that every user will be an instant expert,” the supporting ideas speak to both the development and business decision-makers.

He gets you set up with the proper equipment; if you were wondering, you should have at least one physical device for each platform your app supports. You will most likely also work with device simulators, but testing is not complete without a real device.

If you think that creating mobile help just involves making your desktop application help fit in the screen, you really need this book. “Mobile help pages are more about careful design, not volume,” Welinske writes. “Less is more. Pick the right words, thoughtfully lay them out, and layer to other content when needed.” You will get tons of valuable advice on crafting words and images no matter what type of help you decide to offer.

“I’ve got to decide what type of help to offer” you say? Oh yes, with a fledgling technology, you get choices. The easiest thing from a development standpoint is to create Web-based help that links from the app to your company’s web server. If your users are not often connected to the net when using your app (if they need a wi-fi connection, or are reaching the limits of their data plan), though, they might become easily frustrated.

Conversely, if your help is integrated with the app itself, your schedule must run concurrently with the software developers. Your help also becomes part of the approval process for the platform’s app market. The book helps you make the best decision for your users.

The second half of the book offers how-to information for developing user assistance for the Apple iOS, Android, and Windows Phone 7 platforms. You’ll learn the basics of how to get and use Apple’s Xcode integrated development tools, the Eclipse-based Android development environment and Microsoft’s Visual Studio Express for Windows Phone. As you might suspect from that description, you’ll be using many of the same tools your developers use, and knowing something (even just a little) about programming will help you create your UA. Welinske offers resources to help you with the C and Objective-C programming languages.

The 128-page book is lavishly illustrated with examples of mobile help, along with honest critiques of each help application’s strengths and weaknesses (even when his own company developed the help!).

A technical note: The book is available both as a printed work and an e-book, both from Lulu.com. I suspect the e-book version may be more useful. Too often, the screen shots jump to the next printed page after Welinske describes what you should be looking at. The e-book obviously gives you easier access to referenced websites as well. Fortunately, all of the book’s links are publicly available (even if you don’t buy the book) at the WritersUA site, http://www.writersua.com/mobile.

Joe Welinske gives technical communicators a quick resource in helping our users manage this new technology. He also gives workshops based on the book that amplifies its themes; if he comes to your town, you should see him.

Paperback: 142 pages
Publisher: WritersUA (June 22, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-13: 978-1-257-50372-8

Mike McCallister

Mike McCallister is devoted to the idea that technology need not be feared, and can be mastered by anyone. After all, he grew up in the days when computers filled entire rooms, and spent 13 years as a civil service clerk doing nothing more technical than recording WordPerfect macros. Mike is also devoted to making computing easier for the full spectrum of user levels and experience. You can connect with Mike through his Google+ page.

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