Session Summary: Getting Started with User Assistance (UA) for Mobile Applications

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Presenter: Joe Welinske, WritersUA

Effective mobile user assistance (UA) requires a shift from traditional UA thinking, and according to Joe Welinske, that shift includes a focus on usability, word choice and a bit of zen. Welinske’s session on getting started with mobile UA, delivered at WritersUA, provided great foundational guidance on what to consider in planning, designing and building mobile UA. He gave us an example of a company he’d worked with that used a payroll iOS app to accomplish their individual users’ very specific time tracking goals.

Get zen. Joe emphasized repeatedly that mobile UA must be concise. It’s important to “boil down” your text and reduce information given to the bare minimum. If you can, get it all the way down to verbs and nouns. In the same way, you’ll want to remove as much extraneous numbering and punctuation as possible, both for space reasons and because they often just don’t look right in the context of a mobile application.

UA for mobile can run the gamut, from assistance for “sidecar apps” that complement large, traditional applications, to assistance for more complicated and powerful apps, especially for iPad. In the mobile world, there’s a lot of competition, and thus less time to impress.

Usability testing, even if informal, is key to the success of your UA. There’s really nothing like getting your app in front of the user and watching them try to solve problems. For example, Joe found while testing that more than one screen of pure information annoys the user. They want it all in one place. Of course, that makes your job as a writer difficult.

Word choice turned out to be massively important. A “hide” button worked better than the original “dismiss” button for a timer within the app. “Text color” worked better than “font color.” Although there is a difference in the meaning of the words, it turned out “text” was clearer to a larger number of people.

Emphasize tasks through the use of color and bold text. This signals the user to pay attention, drawing the eye and allowing the user to quickly parse information.

In a mobile app, help is often banished to a dark corner of a submenu. Obviously, this makes it difficult for your user to get the help they need! Consider requesting that the programmers add functionality, such as a [?] button, to your app so that users can easily access it.

In order to develop for iOS, you will need the following:


  • Lion
  • Xcode from App Store: iPhone SDK
  • iPhone/iPad


  • Interface Builder
  • Objective-C
  • WebKit

Welinske noted that there are many more opportunities for user assistance on the iPad due to its increased screen size. Companies getting started with mobile development should look into Android, Kindle, and Windows Phone user assistance development as well. Android can be more difficult to develop in than iOS is. On the other hand, the Windows platform is just as easy and intuitive as working in iOS, but the platform hasn’t really taken off just yet.

The bottom line: No matter what platform your company’s mobile application is running on, remember to keep your mobile UA as concise and intuitive as possible.


Jacquie Samuels

12 years ago

Firstly, thank goodness for your view on the Oxford comma. I may have had to stop talking to you had you not believed in it. Secondly, “getting zen” should make for a delightfully difficult job of single sourcing content meant for both regular tech pubs and for a mobile application, what with getting rid of punctuation, numbering, and everything but nouns and verbs(!!). Did Joe address that little issue?

Ashley Brown

Ashley Brown

12 years ago

They can pry my Oxford comma from my cold, dead hands. I definitely agree with you here – single-sourcing a mobile and desktop app would be tough. Though he didn’t mention single-sourcing directly in his presentation, the impression I got was that the apps he was writing for didn’t have content that directly related to desktop software. I could see from his screen shots that he went extremely minimalist, which I think was appropriate in context, but which would surely seem strange with more available screen real estate.

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