Often, the term software user assistance (UA) is used as a synonym for technical documentation, such as user manuals and online help.
However, true software user assistance is much more. Ideally, a good software user assistance solution involves multiple levels or “defense lines”:
Level 1: The software is built in a way so that its structure and operation reflect how the software’s users think and work. If this can be achieved, large parts of the software’s use become intuitive and many questions don’t even arise.
Level 2: Also the elements within the user interface of the software are named in a way so that they speak the users’ language. Again: If this can be achieved, many questions don’t even arise.
Level 3: At places where the operation can’t be made intuitive (for example, because parameters need some particular background knowledge), small descriptive texts embedded into the user interface can immediately answer many of the users’ questions. It depends on the kind of software and on its use, how far this should go. If you have some software that its users use over a long period of time, descriptive texts within the user interface sooner or later will become disturbing. So, in this case, you should not use these texts―or you should set up an option for hiding them. On the other hand, if you have some software that users only use occasionally, descriptive texts within the user interface can be an ideal solution. A typical scenario where you can find embedded help texts frequently and for very good reasons are programs for declaring your income tax: These programs are used only rarely (exactly once a year), and at the same time users have a big need for learning which information to enter into particular fields.
Level 4: If levels 1 to 3 have been implemented successfully, users need to read the “real” documentation only on rare occasions. This user documentation can then concentrate on teaching global concepts, on showing practical examples, and on tips that make the users more productive.
In the end, all sides involved benefit from a multi-level software user assistance concept: short documentation makes the product look simple and thus attractive, and it makes your clients happy. But short documentation can also be created more quickly and at lower costs. If the documentation needs to be translated into foreign languages, the savings multiply with each language.