Session Summary: Reworking Existing User Assistance (UA) for iOS Apps

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Presenter:  Myles Pflum, Filemaker

Everything in mobile, says Myles Pflum of Filemaker, is NEW! It’s a new paradigm with a new experience, and users have new expectations. With mobile applications come fast release cycles and limited real estate for your user assistance  text. With all mobile’s challenges, though, come many opportunities to reach new audiences.

In his WritersUA session on UA Tips and Tricks for iPhone/iPad, Pflum recounted his experience writing help for Filemaker Go. They had less than sixty days to rework existing HTML content for their help, including time for translation, but they made it work by repurposing existing desktop content for iOS with minor CSS & HTML tweaks.

Getting Started

You’ll really need a Mac to develop user assistance for iOS. To begin, Pflum suggests viewing your existing help in the Safari browser. Safari allows you to view your content about ninety-eight to ninety-nine percent the way it will be viewed in iOS. However, you don’t want users to switch out of the app to Safari to view the help, because it creates an unsatisfying user experience. Instead, build content to be viewed using UIWebView, an embedded browser, within the app.

Content: Cloud vs. In-App User Assistance

HTML content can be locally installed with the app, cloud content on the Web, or both. Critical content should probably be in-app, whereas less critical content can be delivered via the cloud. According to Pflum, you don’t necessarily have to choose one over the other, but it’s key to keep user location in mind. Where your customers use your app dictates how you deliver user assistance. Will they have an internet connection? Then cloud content is perfectly acceptable. But what if your app displays hiking trails? Then your content should be largely in-app.

Structuring your Mobile User Assistance

The technical writing team at Filemaker used HTML 5 for Help Viewer. (HTML4 will also work in iOS.) This was the “kitchen sink” help available in the cloud. They also used context-sensitive help within a “PopOver” that incorporated content using UIWebView. Pflum says that mobile app developers will understand these concepts. The architecture  for the UA content was very simple: a home page, topics, images, CSS, JavaScript, and supporting pages (Pflum recommends using the latter two only if necessary). Filemaker Go’s help launches through a Help button as well as a series of context-sensitive help buttons.

Making It Look Like a Native iOS Application

Check out the Apple Human Interface Guidelines for tips in addition to the following:

  • Focus on content. Don’t try to replicate the desktop experience on a mobile device when you’re starting out. Pare down to bare minimum and replace other features later if users miss them.
  • Use monochromatic, neutral shades with high contrast.
  • Be sure to support both portrait and landscape orientations.

You can use CSS to make it look more native as well. Try text-shadow, rounded corners, and CSS3 gradients. CSS3 allows gradients in backgrounds without having to use an image, which is useful as you work to support different orientations. Also, consider implementing a Google custom search bar into your UA. This can be done in HTML5.

Thinking About Mobile UA Deployment

These pages are fairly lightweight and can probably be placed on an existing infrastructure, such as the server used for your current business website. Remember that the content will be public without authentication. This can be a boon for your user assistance, as the general public will be able to search for your Help and link to it throughout the larger web.

The bottom line: Repurposing existing content for mobile user assistance in a short time period can be a challenge, but a few clever tricks will keep you from losing your mind while meeting your deadline.

Ashley Brown

Ashley Full Stop Brown hates it when people run her names together. In addition to her responsibilities as a full-time Professional Writing major and Computer Science minor at the University of Memphis, she edits all the things at Edits, Full Stop and creates jewelry for Woodvine Design. Her clients have been published in Stone Telling, Goblin Fruit, and Apex Magazine, among others. She will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 2013. Ashley is an enthusiastic proponent of mobile applications and their myriad uses and does not believe paper books are any better than ebooks. She excels at the art of taking a pile of words and turning them into a finished, clear, interesting document. She has read the Chicago Manual of Style from cover to cover, and will fight for the right to use her beloved Oxford comma. When she is not writing for TechWhirl, doing homework, polishing documents until they shine, wrapping various objects in wire, or wrangling her adorable toddler, she is likely to be found with a book and a glass of wine on her porch in Memphis, Tennessee.

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