Time was when we weren’t interrupted quite as much as we are these days. It’s hard to remember, but there was a day without mobile phones, Twitter, Facebook, email, or pop-up ads. We used to be able to take the time to learn something new.
Those days are over. It’s not that we don’t learn new things, but the time slots in which we can learn are much shorter. We don’t have two hours to read a help manual. We probably don’t even have 20 minutes. Instead, we learn a bit here and a slice there, all adding up to real learning but not in contiguous time.
These days our experience is more like learning to fly while already in flight. We have to learn how to do something even as we do it. That is how little time we have! It’s like being asked to tango for the first time by a world-class dancer. You don’t have time to ask where the next step goes, you can’t ask what moves you’re going to do, you just gotta dance.
Well-written help manuals that teach us the ins and outs of a new piece of software are a dying breed. Call-center help lines are rarely offered. “Help”, in general, is going the way of the dodo. In its place is embedded support: directions, tips, cues, and other signposts that can nudge us back on track. One example of this type of inline hand-holding is microcopy: the small, useful copy that helps answer contextual questions and defray concerns.
For software going forward, help will be built into the user interface. It will be a part of the infrastructure, embedded in normal interface elements instead of being an add-on. If it’s not available in context, it might as well be invisible.
In this way, the interface becomes more integral to the user experience than simply a tool to do a task with. As Julie Larson-Green has said:
“User interface is customer service for the computer.”